Social issues stole the spotlight this year in the Tennessee legislature

Social issues stole the spotlight this year in the Tennessee legislature

May 6th, 2012 by Andy Sher in News

The Tennessee House of Representatives meets for the second session of the 107th General Assembly in this file photo.

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

POLL: Did Tennessee lawmakers do a good job this year?

Gov. Bill Haslam, center, appears at a press conference on Tuesday following the adjournment of the 107th General Assembly in Nashville. The Republican governor was joined by House Speaker Beth Harwell, R-Nashville, and Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, in lauding the passage of a budget plan that includes cuts to the estate and gift taxes and the sales tax on groceries.

Gov. Bill Haslam, center, appears at a press...

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

NASHVILLE -- Tennessee lawmakers this year passed measures to overhaul state civil service, cut taxes and combat crime, but issues like science and sex education, abortion and guns often wound up grabbing headlines.

With the governorship, the House and Senate under firm Republican control, long-stymied social conservatives pushed causes dear to their hearts during the 107th General Assembly that ended last week.

In so doing, they sometimes made state, national and international news and helped feed the voracious appetite of the 24/7 news cycle. And they provided grist for late-night political satirists like Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert, who gleefully leaped into Tennessee's culture wars.

After lawmakers concluded their annual session, Democrats charged that Republicans undercut efforts to promote Tennessee as a business-friendly mecca.

"We're the laughingstock in a lot of publications [with] some of these crazy bills that these right-wingers, right-wing Republicans, have brought forth this year," said former House Speaker Jimmy Naifeh, D-Covington, who blocked many such attempts until he lost the speakership in 2009.

Gov. Bill Haslam and some Republican leaders complained that the social issues got too much attention at the expense of other initiatives.

"I feel like there was an incredible amount of substantive things [during he legislative session], but it'd be easy to have missed that in what has been covered and focused on," Haslam said. "I would argue that the substantive things accomplished this year are fairly, pretty unique."

Among other achievements he and other GOP leaders cited: doing away with restrictive civil service requirements, cutting government, reducing the sales tax on groceries, eliminating the gift tax, initiating a phase-out of the inheritance tax and overhauling any number of regulatory boards and commissions.

Nonetheless, Haslam said Wednesday he will use his first veto since taking office in 2011 on a bill promoted by social conservatives. It seeks to pressure Vanderbilt University, a private institution, into dropping its "all-comers" anti-discrimination policy.

Vanderbilt's policy requires Christian and other religious organizations receiving student fees to drop policies banning gays or other members who are outside the organizations' core beliefs. The measure also affects public colleges and universities, none of which have such "all-comers" policies.

Haslam said he disagrees with Vanderbilt's policy but also believes strongly in limited government.

"I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution," he said.

Activists hope to deluge the governor's office with phone calls supporting the bill in hope of persuading a change of heart.

"I'm reminded of what Yogi Berra said -- it ain't over until the fat lady sings," said David Fowler, a former Republican state senator from Signal Mountain who heads the conservative Family Action Council of Tennessee.

He noted that Vanderbilt's policy "singles out religious groups and doesn't affect Greek fraternities and sororities."

Haslam also questioned a bill, brought by the Eagle Forum, to limit the percentage of foreign instructors with visas who teach at public charter schools. Democrats and others charge it is aimed at Muslims.

Haslam said he is asking the state attorney general to rule on its constitutionality.

Monkey business

One of the most controversial bills was sponsored by Senate Speaker Pro Tempore Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who got it from Fowler.

Tennessee State Sen. Bo Watson

Tennessee State Sen. Bo Watson

Photo by Patrick Smith /Times Free Press.

Watson, who has a biology degree, said the "Academic Freedom Act" promotes "critical thinking" by students and protects public school teachers when they address "strengths and weaknesses" in scientific theories such as evolution and climate change.

"The one thing that it potentially changes is a teacher's comfort level and confidence in responding to questions students may have regarding scientific theories that are taught in the classroom," Watson said.

He acknowledged those questions could include faith-based concepts such as creationism or intelligent design.

Critics called it a modern-day "monkey bill" that echoes the 1920s Tennessee law banning the teaching of evolution, which led to the 1925 trial of Dayton, Tenn., teacher John Scopes.

Three Vanderbilt scientists criticized the bill in an op-ed, asking, "What high-tech employer will want to open up shop in a state that allows ideology and prejudice to trump science education?"

Haslam refused to sign the bill, but he didn't veto it, either.

That drew a stinging editorial from The Washington Post, which noted the governor "rightly expressed concern that the law would fog state education policy, introducing a lack of clarity that is easy to interpret as pretext for doing more than its words superficially suggest."

The New York Times' editorial director, Andrew Rosenthal, criticized Tennessee lawmakers in a recent blog post.

"Wishing doesn't make it so, but don't tell that to the Tennessee Legislature. It seems determined to lead the nation in yearning for an era when Genesis was the last word on science, when there were no gay people and nobody engaged in nonmarital sex, so there were no teenage pregnancies and no unwanted children."

Sex and schools

Other controversies involved lawmakers wading into what is or isn't taught in public schools about sex.

Comedian Stephen Colbert

Comedian Stephen Colbert

Photo by Associated Press /Times Free Press.

The "Don't Say Gay" bill, pushed by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, passed last year in the Senate and nearly made it through the House this session.

It limited sexually related instruction to "natural human reproduction science" in kindergarten through eighth grade.

Last year, gay actor George Takei, who played USS Enterprise helmsman Lt. Hikaru Sulu in the original "Star Trek" television series, beamed onto YouTube with a satirical swipe at the measure.

The bill "is premised on the misguided belief that by not talking about gay people, they can simply make us disappear," he said

This year, Fowler and others focused on what's taught to older students in a bill calling for an abstinence-based approach and banning "gateway sexual activity."

On Comedy Central, Colbert lampooned the bill.

"I believe that this law is vital," Colbert declared, "because things like holding hands and kissing are just like gateway drugs."

But Fowler said the bill clearly defines "gateway sex activity" as "encouraging the touching for purposes of sexual gratification of certain intimate parts of the body," he said, noting the bill links to legal descriptions in other parts of state code.

"I don't expect comedy shows from liberals to accurately portray a bill like that," Fowler said. "And thankfully, our legislators were more interested in what the bill actually said rather than what Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert had to say in jest."

Abortion and prayer

Tennessee state representative Mike Bell

Tennessee state representative Mike Bell

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Tennessee Right to Life brought a bill that initially sought to make public the names of doctors providing abortion services and to list county-by-county data, including ages and marital status, of women receiving abortions.

Doctors objected, saying it could put them in physical danger.

The bill also required any doctor performing abortions to have hospital-admitting privileges in the same county or an adjoining county.

The House sponsor, Rep. Matthew Hill, R-Jonesborough, eventually amended his bill to just that provision, but most Democrats still were opposed.

Lawmakers passed bills allowing teachers and other school personnel to participate in student-led prayer before and after school, and one sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, allowing local governments to set up "historical displays" that include the Ten Commandments.

Fowler said there is a reason why these bills are bursting through after years of Naifeh bottling most of them up in subcommittees.

Conservative groups and lawmakers want the state's policy to reflect "the values that generally speaking are embraced by Tennesseans, namely respect for the family and respect for religious liberties," he said.

Guns in parking lots

Tennessee Representative Gerald McCormick

Tennessee Representative Gerald McCormick

Photo by Leigh Shelle Hunt

One failed bill pitted the National Rifle Association and the Tennessee Firearms Association against powerful business interests, including Volkswagen.

The bill would have allowed workers or visitors to store weapons in their vehicles on private parking lots, regardless of owners' concerns.

Top House Republicans, including Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, were attacked as the "axis of evil" by Firearms Association Executive Director John Harris.

McCormick, Haslam and others said the bill went too far. It eventually died.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at or 615-255-0550.