NASHVILLE - Former state lawmaker-turned Christian conservative activist David Fowler is squaring off in a new fight with gay-rights activists, this time over his effort to change Tennessee's anti-bullying law for students.
Fowler, a former Republican state senator from Signal Mountain, is president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee. The group's December newsletter says it wants "to make sure [the law] protects the religious liberty and free speech rights of students who want to express their views on homosexuality."
In an interview, Fowler said, "the purpose is to stop bullying, not create special classes of people who are more important than others."
But leaders of the Tennessee Equality Project, a gay-rights group, charge the legislation "would give students a 'license to bully' that allows them to hide their irrational biases behind an extreme religious belief."
The legislation did not move in the General Assembly last year as lawmakers battled over other gay-related legislation that drew national attention.
The Senate sponsor of changes to the bullying law, Sen. Jim Tracy, R-Shelbville, is "reviewing the legislation" and will likely "narrow" the "very broad" current bill, a Tracy aide said Tuesday.
The Fowler-backed bill says anti-bullying programs and measures can't use materials or training that "explicitly or implicitly promote a political agenda [and] make the characteristics of the victim the focus rather than the conduct of the person engaged in harassment, intimidation, or bullying."
In his posting on the Tennessee Equality Project's website, the group's president, Jonathan Cole, said things were "difficult" for gay students last year.
For example, he said, "we learned from family, friends and fellow students that Jacob Rogers experienced years of anti-gay bullying at Cheatham County Central High School in Ashland City prior to ending his life."
Cole said "the 'License to Bully' and 'Don't Say Gay' bills will only serve to increase risks to students. But some lawmakers don't seem to get it."
The "don't-say-gay bill" is another measure which would ban teachers grades K-8 from broaching the topic of homosexuality with students.
Fowler's group objected to gay activists tying the bill to Rogers' death, saying "the young man had numerous emotional problems and because he was also open about his homosexual conduct was also often made fun of at school."
It said the notes Rogers left behind mentioned "his mother leaving him, his alcohol and drug abuse and an eating disorder. But nothing about bullying."
FACT said it "is wrong to bully people because of their sexual practices. But it's wrong to bully people period. The larger lesson here is that these tragedies are often the rotten fruit of the all-about-me individualistic culture that comes when we deny the existence of God and his image in us. When life and people become cheap, tragedy becomes the result."
In the interview, Fowler said gays are "not the only people who get insulted. The thing we need to concentrate on is not whether the characteristics of the victim justify being protected but on the conduct of the person engaging in the bullying while respecting constitutional rights."
People should "never encourage slurs," Fowler noted, "but the purpose of bullying statutes is to prevent persons or the property being harmed -- not their mere sensibilities of being offended. That's where common sense has to rein."
Fowler said, "I can't think of anyone who holds to true Christianity that finds it appropriate to slur people and justifiy it as consistent with their Christianity."