NASHVILLE — Legislation that would ban the teaching of gay issues to elementary and middle school students may be stalled, as Republican lawmakers discuss whether they should proceed with the bill.
House Speaker Beth Harwell told reporters during her weekly press conference in her office Thursday that she and her colleagues are reviewing the current curriculum “to see if this bill is necessary or if we have unintended consequences with this.”
The legislation, known as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill, limits all sexually related instruction to “natural human reproduction science” in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Harwell said there’s concern the measure could inadvertently open the doors to “sex education at an inappropriate age bracket” in public schools.
State Education Department spokeswoman Kelli Gauthier didn’t know if that would happen, but she did tell The Associated Press on Friday that the proposal is “consistent with the state’s current curriculum as established by the state Board of Education.”
Earlier this week, a vote on the bill was delayed in the House Education Committee after supporters were told of fellow Republican Gov. Bill Haslam’s concerns.
The start of the meeting was delayed 15 minutes while Republicans huddled in Harwell’s office with a member of the Haslam administration.
Haslam also told reporters earlier this week he’d prefer that the issue just be dropped.
“I’ve said from the very beginning that this is an issue we’ve encouraged people to lay aside,” he said. “I think there’s better things to be doing.”
The governor acknowledged that the proposal has garnered negative national attention.
“In the end you have to look at any bill — what it actually says, as well as the perception of it,” Haslam said. “And both of those are issues.”
Republican House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, of Chattanooga, said he had spoken to the governor, who said he “would like to see legislation in that area saying more what we will do, rather than what we won’t do.”
House sponsor Joey Hensley has said he plans to run the bill regardless of Haslam’s wishes.
“The governor has to deal with things that he has to deal with, and we deal with things we have to deal with,” said the Hohenwald Republican.
Opponents of the measure say it’s too broad and fear it would prevent teachers and others from speaking out against the bullying of gay teens.
Democratic House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, of Ripley, said he’s planning to introduce an amendment that clarifies the bill won’t interfere with the anti-bullying statute that was passed last year.
Rep. Bill Dunn has a more comprehensive proposal that won’t prohibit “any school counselor, nurse or other authorized employee ... from appropriately responding to a student whose circumstances present issues involving human sexuality.”
The Knoxville Republican said he’s not sure how he will proceed, but he said the legislation is necessary “to make sure the state Board [of Education] doesn’t pass curriculum that is contrary” to what parents may want in schools.
Harwell said she hopes to have a solution by next week.
The Nashville Republican is quick to point out that the measure was not a priority for Republicans when the session began, with the majority more interested in focusing on budget issues and job creation. But Harwell demurred when a reporter asked her why she wasn’t more aggressive in batting down issues many consider “silly.”
“I don’t think that any issue that is a concern to my colleagues is silly,” she said. “I think they have legitimate concerns, and that’s what we’re trying to address and work through.”