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Early Timeout Taken on Bill Restricting Human Sexuality Discussions in Public Schools

A measure making it illegal for public elementary or middle schools in Tennessee to teach about homosexuality has cropped up again in the state Legislature and suffered a minor setback Wednesday.

But Rep. Joey Hensley delayed committee action on the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill, after a request from House Education Committee Chairman Richard Montgomery.

Hensley, R-Hohenwald, who serves as the number two man on the committee and chairs the subcommittee where the bill currently rests, told TNReport Wednesday the controversial legislation will most likely reappear in three weeks.

House Bill 229, which has become the source of an annual hubbub on the Hill and was to be the target of protests Wednesday, would prohibit schools from providing “instruction or materials” that discuss sexual orientations other than heterosexuality.

The proposal has previously drawn national media attention, falling on sympathetic ears as well as eliciting criticism that it turned the state Senate into “a national laughing stock” when that body last year passed a version of the bill – Senate Bill 49 – by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville. The measure died in the House.

Montgomery, R-Sevierville, said he asked Hensley for the delay after several committee members asked for more time to look at it. Explaining the move to the committee, Montgomery said the bill would be packaged with other curriculum legislation and taken up at a later date.

Hensley recently replaced Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, as the bill’s lead sponsor. Dunn, who still appears as a co-sponsor, said, “The key point was strategy.”

As a committee leader, Hensley is well-positioned to shepherd the bill forward, and Dunn noted Hensley’s status as a father, a doctor and a former school board member as reasons his sponsorship might be advantageous for the legislation.

Hensley has also just announced plans to to run for a new state Senate seat.

Montgomery said he hasn’t surveyed the committee’s membership and that he’s still on the fence himself.

“I’m not sure yet where I’m at,” he said. “I’d like to get all the knowledge we can first.”

One leading statehouse Democrat said the early appearance of such a controversial bill sets the wrong tone for the legislative session.

“Why are we doing this? It’s just a political move,” said Democratic House Leader Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley. “The first meeting out of the box, I think you have to set the tone, and this is not a good tone to set.”

Both Hensley and Dunn said they feel confident they have the votes to get the bill out of committee this time. But if they don’t, that doesn’t mean it’s going away. Campfield, who has pushed the measure for years, said another delay wouldn’t phase him.

“Hopefully it will make it up to the House,” he said. “But if not, we’ll be back again next year.”

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