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Tenn. religion bill discriminates against non-Christians

By Aysha Mahmood
On April 2, 2014

After a 10-year-old was reprimanded for writing God down as the person she admired most, two Tennessee lawmakers took the initiative to create a legislation to protect her religious rights. The bill, entitled Religious Viewpoints Anti-Discrimination Act, was approved last Monday and is now awaiting Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam's approval.
If approved, the bill would expand the amount of religious freedom a student has in schools without punishment or discrimination. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, "a student could merely write 'God' on a chemistry test as the answer to a question asking where water comes from. A student could also stand in class and say their religion says that gay people are sinners and going to hell, and that speech would be legally protected."
I have always been a big believer in the First Amendment and allowing students the ability to speak their mind, but there is a thin line between religious freedom and imposing one's own beliefs onto another. What Tennessee lawmakers fail to see is that this type of religious freedom can lead to bullying and, because of the rise of suicides due to bullying, serious thought should be given to how this bill will affect those who believe differently than the majority. Telling someone that they're "sinners" and going to hell because they're gay or of a religion of any other minority resembles that of a hate crime. To be allowed this type of language to be used so freely and without second thought of how it will affect others makes me question what kind of people these young kids will turn into.
What strikes me as odd is that this bill was made with the intent to protect a student's right to religion, but that protection is already guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. The bill just seems redundant and confusing to those schools that want to comply with the federal laws, but also want to protect students in their schools.What makes this Tennessee law so extreme is that it actually requires local school boards to select student speakers and allow for them to express their beliefs in assemblies or classrooms. The way these student speakers are chosen is unclear, but I imagine it would be done out of bias and favor. Even if the choosing was completely fair, there would still be students of different faith that would not be picked, forcing them to listen to religious messages or participate in their exercises.
The bottom line is that a public school is not the right place for sermons about religion, especially when these sermons are taking place in classrooms. A public school is where all students should feel safe being who they are, no matter their background. With this bill enacted, children of minority religions or those of the LGBTQ community probably won't feel very comfortable learning among their peers that have criticized their religion and belief system. It would be incredibly hard to feel accepted in a school where someone is constantly bullying you into believing what they believe in. Rather than promoting tolerance, Tennessee lawmakers have chosen a bill that strictly gives students the leeway to act as disrespectful to other students as they want and claim religion as their defense. The First Amendment right has always had preference in schools, as long as it doesn't harm or interfere with the safety of other students and their ability to learn.
School is about receiving an education and if someone wants to preach about their religious beliefs, they should join a church or attend a place where they can practice their faith. Ultimately, school, a place of learning, becomes what the ACLU coins as a "Sunday school."
Of course, I believe in exposing kids to other religions, beliefs and ideas, but I don't believe in forcing them upon them. Students will have no choice in whether or not they want to hear these speeches because they will take place in classrooms and school assemblies. Unlike a college student who can just choose to walk away or not attend, a child cannot, and because these sermons are school sanctioned, parents have no way of knowing whether their students are being coerced into a certain religion.
It's important to note that similar laws were also passed in South Carolina, Mississippi and Texas, all states that are unsurprisingly in the South. If bills like these continue to be passed, more bullying will occur and more students will think infringing their beliefs on others is socially acceptable. 


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