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With God on Their Side: The Tennessee Pro-Bully Bill

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Shortly after moving to Tennessee, my then seven-year-old daughter and I were shopping for some clothes. She saw a big puffy dress and commented on how pretty it was.

"Yes, it is pretty," I agreed, "But where will you ever wear it? We don't go to church."

"Shhhh!!" she scolded me, "Don't say that so loud, people might hear us!"

I couldn't believe it. We'd only been in the state a few months. We'd never discussed going or not going to church. Where had she heard that? The realization that in just a few months, even a seven-year-old had learned the cultural script of what did or did not constitute acceptable behavior in our new home, made me feel as if my maternal influence was no match for the forces of southern culture.

But I loved living in Tennessee, and shortly after we relocated to the northwest a few years later, I was recalling with nostalgia some of the things we missed, including her teachers. Yet I was again surprised when my daughter, then twelve, commented on how much more she was enjoying her new school. "I can finally say the O word."

"The O word?" I asked, completely puzzled.

"Yes, Obama. In Tennessee, I never even heard a teacher mention his name."

"You mean they never even mentioned him after he was elected?" I asked, incredulously.

"No, they never even mentioned that he was elected. I learned about it from you."

I long ago learned to take the reports of a grade school child with a grain of salt, so I can't speak to the accuracy of her impressions, but the very fact that it was her impression that she was not free to speak of the President of the United States -- much less the historical significance of the first African-American president elected to lead our nation -- made me realize just how powerful are the subtleties of speech -- the unwritten rules regarding what we can and cannot say, and what we learn we must say, to be socially accepted.

And so it was that when I read that a bill has been introduced in Tennessee challenging anti-bully laws ostensibly on the basis of freedom of religion, I was not surprised. Appalled, but not surprised. For while I have grave reservations about the efficacy, constitutionality and fallout from anti-bully laws, it's one thing to challenge such laws by noting that however unsavory the speech, banning it leads to potential infringements on all forms of unpopular expression, whereas it's quite another to suggest that the right to ridicule and torment is somehow divinely inspired. After giving the matter some thought, all I could come up with was "Yuck!"

So I took a look at the bill. And once I did, all I could do was smile. Not a big happy toothsome smile, to be sure, but one of those cynical, lop-sided grins we get when we sense a dark and comic punch line coming. Senate Bill 0760 (House Bill 1153) introduced by the Family Action Council of Tennessee (FACT) whose mission is to "promote and defend a culture that values the traditional family, for the sake of the common good," is ostensibly aimed at clarifying that the law not interfere with constitutionally protected rights to express one's religious convictions. Yet what the bill actually says is that hostile educational environments "shall not be construed to include discomfort and unpleasantness that can accompany the expression of a viewpoint or belief that is unpopular, not shared by other students, or not shared by teachers or school officials."

What a relief. They're just defending the rights of godless socialists to speak their mind, from the looks of it. This bill would, in theory, assure Tennessee's science teachers that they could teach evolution and not fear reprisals from their doubting coworkers. Indeed, one could even imagine the law used to protect the right to ridicule and torment creationists as much as homosexuals, were one so inclined, an equal opportunity permit to bully so to speak. Yet in practice, it is unlikely that the bill, if passed, would lead to any such protections, because our laws are only as strong as those who enforce them, and in some communities, freedom's just another word for nothing else to choose.

The bill further notes that

. . . bullying prevention task forces, programs, and other initiatives formed by school districts, including any curriculum adopted for such purposes, shall not include materials or training that explicitly or implicitly promote a political agenda . . . or teach or suggest that certain beliefs or viewpoints are discriminatory when an act or practice based on such belief of viewpoint is not a discriminatory practice as defined [by state law].

What that means is that educators could not teach the very definition of discrimination, much less that it is as discriminatory to exclude politically conservative people from job opportunities, for example, as it is to exclude someone based on their sexuality. That sounds like a political agenda to me, but what do I know?

What I do know is that the non-factual FACT has introduced another bill (Senate Bill 1305/House Bill 1352) that would allow parents to sue teachers who teach anything other than abstinence only in sex education. With the Orwellian sounding name of Integrated Sexual Education Curriculum, nothing outside the conservative group's political agenda for limiting sex to married heterosexual couples is permitted to be integrated into the curriculum - to even discuss birth control or how to protect against STD's could put a teacher at risk of being personally sued.

The more I thought over the "Pro-Bully Bill," the more perverse my fantasies became as I imagined it and others like it used to prevent teachers from teaching Integrated Sexual Education Curricula, Creationism, or any of the very politicized topics that have seeped into our public school curricula. Would it have any real impact on bullying, I wondered? Quite possibly, though there is, fortunately, nothing in the bill that sanctions any threats or physical harm to students. Nonetheless, whenever religion is invoked to sanction cruelty, I recognize the power of the argument to unite people in its support. The more bad behavior is promoted in the name of virtue, the more tenacious people will become in their belief that it is not only acceptable, but that it is admirable.

The Tennessee "Pro-Bully" Bill is a diabolically clever effort to defend ridicule and exclusion in the name of God, while inadvertently providing a potential means to defeat some of the most politicized of Tennessee's conservative educational agendas. In that regard, there is not so much in the bill to fear as there is to exploit; should it pass, it may well be used to defeat the very aims the FACT seeks to achieve in our schools by imposing their political agendas through school materials and curricula.

Yet the proposed bill does raise an important issue about the potential for anti-bully legislation to violate our constitutional protections, and for that reason, it merits reasoned dialogue. But just as religion emboldens us to justify behaviors we might otherwise abhor, so too does ideology. Bullying behavior is cruel and intolerable, and policies and discussions addressing it are long overdue. Those who promote laws restricting bullying behaviors have made many good points; it may well be that such laws are necessary in our schools and in our workplaces.

But those who counter that such laws are unnecessary and/or constitute infringements on free speech or other constitutional rights also make valid arguments. While I don't share the aims or tactics of the FACT, their proposed bill raises legitimate legal and social issues that are not easily resolved. Unfortunately, there has been little space for reasoned debate among some who advocate for anti-bully laws. Questioning or challenging the leading paradigms and objectives of the mainstream anti-bully movement has proven risky, with those who do publicly disparaged, shunned, discredited and even subjected to juvenile name-calling. In such an atmosphere of ideologically-driven intolerance, there is as little freedom to raise questions, present differing views, or suggest alternatives; people quickly learn what is and is not acceptable speech when discussing bullying.

It isn't only meanness that fuels aggression. The belief that we are acting "for the common good" can lead the best of us to act badly, to justify aggression, and close our ears to other voices. The Tennessee Bill is an attempt to do just that. But only by thoughtfully addressing the legitimate issue the bill raises -- infringements on constitutional rights -- and checking their own bad behavior at the door -- will the anti-bully movement demonstrate that it is any different.