By Chas Sisk for The Tennessean
Nashville, TN -- A bill to restrict teaching about homosexuality before high school cleared its first hurdle in the state House of Representatives, setting the stage for a second year of debate on the appropriate way to handle discussion about gays and lesbians with schoolchildren.
The House Education subcommittee approved the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill on a voice vote Wednesday, renewing a debate that roiled the legislature last spring over whether elementary and middle schools should be allowed to initiate discussions about homosexuality.
The panel accepted the version of the bill that passed the state Senate late in last year's session. The vote kept the bill on a path to be voted on by the full House before the legislature adjourns in the spring.
Opponents say it will not curb talk about homosexuality among grade school kids but will send the signal that it should be stigmatized. But several lawmakers argued that it would protect parents' right to educate their children about their beliefs on their own terms.
"The basic right as an American is my right to life, my right to liberty and my right to the pursuit of happiness," said state Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis, arguing to keep the subject of homosexuality out of elementary school classrooms. "Within that includes being able to run my home, raise my children as I see fit and to indoctrinate them as I see fit."
Students turn out
The measure, labeled "Don't Say Gay" by its opponents, has proved to be one of the most emotionally charged bills to go before the Tennessee legislature in recent years. Gay and lesbian groups have led opposition to the bill, but many Nashville high school students have turned out as well.
Several dozen students, many of them wearing purple T-shirts, lined the rows of seating in the hearing room Wednesday to show their disagreement with the measure. Their numbers led the subcommittee to relocate the hearing to a larger room.
"To me, they're sending a message that in society gay people aren't really equal," said Thomas Kibby, a student at Hume-Fogg High School. "This law would be kind of moving backwards."
The bill's original sponsor, state Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, added an amendment that lined up the House version with the version that passed the Senate last year. He said the new wording should dispel "hysteria" that has surrounded the issue.
"What this amendment does is keep us in line with current curriculum," he said. "This bill, if amended, does not prohibit the use of the word 'gay,' it does not change the anti-bullying statute, and it does not prohibit a school guidance counselor from discussing the issues of sexuality with a student."
But the Rev. Thomas Kleinert, pastor of Vine Street Christian Church in Nashville, said the bill would discourage discussions about a subject that children hear about constantly.
"Our children have to deal with that complexity long before they've reached sufficient maturity," he said. "Silence in the classroom only adds to the cloak of pain and shame, whereas open, age-appropriate conversation may give them a chance and the courage to talk to an adult they trust."
Supporters alluded to the emotion of the issue, but they said the principle at stake was ensuring that children receive appropriate instruction in a publicly funded setting.
"We put 'phobia' on the end of words, and then we automatically demonize someone who has an opposing view," DeBerry said. "What this bill does is it says everybody has the right to train their children."