published Thursday, April 19th, 2012

Tennessee bill would allow students to express religious viewpoint

LEGISLATIVE ROUNDUP

• The House passed, 98-1, and sent to the Senate an amended version of Gov. Bill Haslam's proposal for mandatory sentences for repeat domestic assault offenders.

Amendments reduced mandatory sentences on second offense from 45 days to 30 days, and on third offense from 120 days to 90 days.

The cost of extra jail time is estimated at $8.1 million a year statewide. Haslam is budgeting $780,000 to help pay for the change. He also is raising daily reimbursment rates for state prisoners in county jails by $2 a day, to $37, at a total cost of $4 million.

• The House passed, 91-0, a pilot project to better coordinate actions by local beer boards, including Chattanooga's, and the state Alcoholic Beverage Commission when considering suspending or revoking beer and mixed-drink licenses.

The aim is for local beer boards and the ABC to consider acting in tandem when one suspends or revokes an alcohol license for misconduct. Its sponsor is Rep. Richard Floyd, R-Chattanooga. It now goes to the governor.

• A bill adding Erlanger's medical chief of staff to the public hospital authority's board passed the House State and Local Government Committee on a voice vote. The sponsor is Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga.

Poll
Should students be able to express their religious beliefs through homework?

NASHVILLE — Tennessee public school students can express their religious beliefs through homework and art in "permissible" subjects under legislation approved Wednesday in the Senate.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Kerry Roberts, R-Springfield, passed on a 29-0 vote. The House version is awaiting a final vote.

Roberts' bill prohibits schools from discriminating against a student based on a religious viewpoint expressed by the student in an otherwise permissible subject such as history or English.

"I'm a little bit confused," said Sen. Beverly Marrero, D-Memphis, who questioned whether the bill would "pretty much blur the line" when it comes to the "separation of church and state.

"It looks to me like this is the kind of thing I did in my Sunday school when I was a child," she added. "I didn't write essays about my religious beliefs in my public schools. I wrote them in my Sunday school."

Roberts disagreed and gave the example of a student given an assignment to write "about the apparent decline of America."

"One student might write that from a political standpoint, from an economic standpoint, from a military standpoint," Robert said. "But another student may wish to write that paper from a religious standpoint, citing as an example the nation of Israel and how God dealt with that nation as they moved away from belief in God."

A teacher couldn't disagree with the viewpoint but would grade the student on the validity of the arguments, grammar and similar criteria in the assignment, Roberts said.

The bill also requires school systems to adopt policies that include providing limited public forums for students at any school event, such as assembly, at which a student can speak publicly about their religious beliefs. Another provision grants access to school facilities to student-led prayer groups, religious clubs or similar religious gatherings, giving them the same rights as other extracurricular school activities.

Marrero abstained from voting on the bill.

Senators also voted 30-0 for a bill requiring local education officials to notify parents about extracurricular activities "by way of student handbooks or policy guidebooks."

Parents could choose to take their children out of such activities. Gay activists have said the measure is directed at least in part against groups for gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender students.

The bill must go back to the House for agreement on changes made in the Senate. That chamber added a severability clause so if any portion is struck down by courts, the rest would be retained.

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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