Tennessee Passes Religious Viewpoint Anti-Discrimination Bill, Allows Religious Expression in Public Schools

( [email protected] ) Mar 30, 2014 07:55 PM EDT
Tennessee lawmakers approve a bill that expands religious protection for public school students, allowing students to express their religious viewpoints through homework, artwork, and oral assignments.

On Monday, Tennessee lawmakers approved "The Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, which seeks to expand religious protection for public school students. The bill passed state Senate 32-0 and allows students to express their religious beliefs through their academic work without discrimination. Schools are required to view student's "voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint" as no different than a secular student's viewpoint.

Rose Acton, a public school teacher in Dunlap, Tennessee and professing Christian, stated "This bill excites me because it teaches students to take pride in their religion and implement their faith into their academic work. I don't want my students to feel they need to be ashamed of, or hide their faith. It's encouraging to see our government approving and promoting religious rights."

The legislation's principal proponents, state Rep. Courtney Rogers (R) and Sen. Ferrell Haile (R), presented the proposal after a teacher asked a 10-year-old student to choose a subject other than God to write about as the person she admired most, according to the Associated Press. The state House passed the bill earlier this month by a vote of 90-2.

The bill states that while students may "express their beliefs" in classroom assignments, their assignments must be "judged by ordinary academic standards." In addition, students are now permitted to organize religious meetings and events in the same way secular students are allowed. The bill also allows students to speak from a religious perspective at graduation ceremonies or public events, stating that "student expression...may not be excluded from the limited public forum because the subject is expressed from a religious viewpoint."

"Students should be allowed to publically proclaim Christ, because he is such a crucial part of many of [my] student's lives. It's exciting to think that our football team is now allowed to pray together and encourage one another spiritually," says Acton.

However, other organizations are not so excited. Daniel Mach, Director of the ACLU, believes the bill is a "thinly veiled attempt to have public schools encourage and promote official prayers." He believes this bill is unnecessary because students already have "important, well established rights to voluntary expression in public schools." He warns that this bill will turn public schools into "Sunday schools" and fears that students will be "required to listen to religious messages or participate in religious exercises that conflict with their own beliefs." 

But for now, proponents of religious freedom in public schools such as Acton are celebrating this newfound freedom and hope it will be a part of a larger reform. "This nation was founded on the principle of freedom-that means freedom of speech, freedom of religion. My hope and prayer is that this legislation expands from Tennessee to the rest of the country, and God is once again proclaimed in our public schools."