Although Haynes says lawmakers had this kind of situation in mind when drafting the legislation, others have a very different interpretation. "Despite its name, this legislation crosses the line from protecting religious freedom into creating systematic imposition of some students’ personal religious views on other students," said Hedy Weinberg, the director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, in a press release. Bloggers at "The Gaily Grind" and "The New Civil Rights Movement" have claimed the law would protect anti-gay bullies.
"I think that criticism is in bad faith and absurd," said David French, a senior counselor at the American Center for Law and Justice. "I have not seen any evidence whatsoever that there is a desire to use religion as a thinly-veiled pretext to bully anybody." Representative Courtney Rogers, one of the bill's co-sponsors, disagrees—one of the staffers in her office called the claim "slanderous."
How did people come to have such different views on a bill about "religious viewpoints"? One side claims to champion persecuted, God-loving fifth-graders, while the other portends schools filled with gay-bashing bullies.
"Anger has been building up on both sides," said Haynes. "On the conservative Christian side, they see this as being used to inappropriately hush up kids. But the reality is that this speech does trigger a lot of emotion, and for some people on [the other] side, we’ve come to a place where kids talking about homosexuality being sinful [is considered] unacceptable in public schools."
One of the big questions is how to define bullying in the first place. "To say that homosexuality is a sin is not bullying," said Mathew Staver, the founder and Chairman of Liberty Counsel, which helped craft similar legislation in Texas. "You can’t make a litmus test that certain words or viewpoints aren’t protected by the Constitution." Haynes agreed that it can be difficult to establish the difference between harassment and free speech. "In the name of stopping what all of us are against—bullying—some groups want to censor religious convictions," he said.
With this particular bill, it seems like LGBT bullying is a bit of a distraction. Of all the religious discrimination claims he's represented, very few have had to do with homosexuality, French said. "I have been on the receiving end of complaint after complaint: Teachers telling students, don’t bring your Bible to recess, you can’t discuss your faith or invite someone to church at school, you can’t form a club, you can’t pray. In all of that time, I can probably count on the fingers of one hand the times that involved any conflict with LGBT students."
But it's also important to remember where this specific debate is taking place. "We are Tennessee," said the ACLU's Weinberg. "It wasn’t that long ago—in 1925—that the Scopes trial took place in Tennessee, and to this day there are efforts to bring religion back into the classroom."