published Sunday, March 25th, 2012

Social issues take spotlight in Tennessee legislature

  • photo
    House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Debra Maggart of Hendersonville speaks to reporters in Nashville, Tenn., on Wednesday, March 16, 2011. (AP Photo/Erik Schelzig)

NASHVILLE -- Some issues dear to the hearts of Tennessee social conservatives have been front and center in the Republican-led General Assembly, with some controversial measures putting lawmakers in the national spotlight.

Among them are abortion, abstinence-based sex education, the so-called "Don't Say Gay" bill, public displays of the Ten Commandments and an attack on a 1992 United Nations environmental sustainability initiative.

Monday, the House is scheduled to take final action on the Academic Freedom Act. It allows teachers to discuss with students "weaknesses" in evolution, climate change and other scientific theories within the state's science education "framework."

Though it was amended by Senate Speaker pro tem Bo Watson, R-Hixson, and passed on the Senate floor last week, scientists and national science education groups still call the measure a back-door attempt to let faith-based "creationism" and "intelligent design" theories into public schools. Watson has called such objections "red herrings."

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, of Nashville, last week sharply criticized those measures, saying moderate Republicans are nervous about some of the "extremist" measures coming from their more conservative members.

"There are some things coming through that just make you think, 'Good Lord!'" Turner told reporters.

The anti-abortion and abstinence-centered sex education bills that moved through committees last week prove "they're preoccupied with sex up here," Turner said.

"They're got a real thing with sex. We're about ready to put the turbans on, I think, and put the women in burqas here if we keep going at this rate."

He said the GOP is "not putting forth a lot of jobs bills."

Instead, he said, "We're making national news on all these crazy things. It's just not good for the state of Tennessee. It's not good for economics here. It's embarrassing; it really is."

House Republican Caucus Chairman Debra Maggart, of Hendersonville, took aim at Turner and his party in a news release.

"As usual, Chairman Turner and the Democrats are overcompensating for something. Perhaps it's their limited legislative agenda?" she said.

Maggart said House Republicans last week advanced proposals to phase out the state inheritance tax by 2015, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam's push for a FastTrack cash-grant program for economic incentives instead of tax credits.

"That's called a jobs agenda," Maggart said. "Turner and his crew should help us with this instead of filing bills for transvestites, legalizing pot and raising the gas tax. That's a reckless agenda that hurts Tennessee."

The "transvestite" bill Maggart cited would allow people who have sex change operations to change the gender listed on their birth certificates. Another measure would legalize medical marijuana.

MISSIONARY POSITIONS

Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, a religious broadcaster, is sponsoring the bill that would create a state website naming doctors who perform abortions and provide county-by-county demographic information -- except for names -- about women who have them.

It also requires doctors at outpatient surgical centers providing abortion services to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

The bill grabbed national attention. Critics charged that it could lead to violence against doctors and the identification of women.

Last week in committee, Hill took out the doctor list and the county-by-county information. He said he had been threatened.

Planned Parenthood of Middle and East Tennessee still objects to treating abortion providers differently from those at other outpatient surgical centers by requiring them to have hospital admitting privileges.

Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, is sponsoring a bill that requires "family life education" curricula in public schools to be abstinence-centered.

The bill has become an alternative to the "Don't Say Gay" bill that has attracted national attention. That measure seeks to limit sexually related instruction to "natural human reproduction science" in grades below high school and bans discussion of gay issues.

Last week, reporters asked House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, whether the abstinence bill negates the need for the "Don't Say Gay" measure.

"It is my opinion that it does," she said.

AGENDA 21

Earlier this month, the House passed, 72-23, a resolution rejecting a 2-decade-old nonbinding U.N. agenda on the environment and poverty as an "insidious" attack on American values.

The measure was sponsored by Rep. Kevin Brooks, R-Cleveland, and debate was sometimes fierce.

Brooks told lawmakers the 288-page U.N. document contains catchphrases such as "sustainable development," which he said really means someone could "come in and take your land, take your business and disrupt your life; that's the insidious part of it."

Republicans are "moving Tennessee back to the right" after decades of Democratic control ended in 2008 elections, Brooks said, noting that some Democrats voted for the resolution.

"The conservative movement people see in the House is a direct result. I would have to say that the [GOP] majority's conservative legislation reflects our constituency and the conservative state of Tennessee that we live in," he said.

Former Republican state Sen. David Fowler, of Signal Mountain, who now heads the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said conservative issues were "dead on arrival" when Democrats controlled the Legislature.

"It's sort of like the dam breaking in the reservoir that have resulted in so many of these bills coming forward," Fowler said.

For instance, Rep. Joe Towns' "saggy pants" bill, which said students couldn't wear their pants below the waistline, died repeatedly in House subcommittees in the past.

Just last week, a retooled version of the Memphis Democrat's bill, forbidding "indecent" exposure of underwear or body parts, zipped through the House Education Committee.

Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville, a prominent social conservative, believes it doesn't go far enough.

"It's pretty shocking to me that you go to practices and games, and young ladies are walking around in their sports bras," he recently said in committee.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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