What a long, strange trip it's been

NASHVILLE - In just under six months, the 2012 Tennessee legislature gave late night TV comics and national political pundits an abundance of material, making the state noteworthy worldwide for its unapologetic attacks on the GLBT community, science and common sense. In what will likely be remembered as one of the more contentious General Assemblies in recent history, the GOP with a clear majority wasted no time in filing a number of socially conservative bills. A few of the most controversial are listed below.

Some legislators seem to have a particularly bad problem with taking no for an answer. In fact, being told no (whether by opposition groups, members of their own party, even the governor himself) seemed not to deter certain legislators and the political action groups behind them from continuing to push bills.

Senator Stacey Campfield (R-Knoxville) the firebrand Republican from East Tennessee, made a name for himself promoting legislation such as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would have restricted all sexually related instruction in Tennessee schools to “natural human reproduction” in grades K-8. Campfield, along with house sponsor Joey Hensley (R-Hohenwald) seemed determined to push the bill, despite mobilized opposition, lack of support from the Republican governor, the attention of national media, and the eventual realization that the state already did not allow sexually related instruction in grades K-8. Eventually, Hensley did agree to not bring the bill to the floor for a vote, but unwilling to fully concede, he warned that the bill may still be refiled next legislative session if he discovered that “alternative lifestyles” are being taught in Tennessee schools.

Possibly the most disturbing bill submitted this year came from Representative Richard Floyd (R-Chattanooga) who along with Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixson) began 2012 legislative year by filing SB2282/HB2279. Their bill that would have criminalized the use of restrooms by transgender individuals by imposing a $59 fine. The bill was so broadly drafted, though, the “offender” might be a mom taking her child to the bathroom or even a male custodian emptying the garbage in the ladies’ room.

In a fiery statement, Floyd publicly threatened to “stomp a mudhole” in any transgendered person making the mistake of using the same dressing room as Floyd’s wife or daughters. Soon after, Senator Watson quickly withdrew his bill in the Senate. After acknowledging the bill’s language was too broad to properly enforce, Floyd still says that he plans to refile a revised version in the next session.

In the state of Tennessee, teachers who condone what lawmakers call “gateway sexual activity” will now face disciplinary action and fines of up to $500. In HB3621/SB3310 by Senator Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) and Representative Jim Gotto (R-Hermitage), gateway sexual behavior is vaguely defined as “sexual conduct encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior." Governor Haslam signed the controversial bill into law after it passed both the Senate and the House with clear majorities.

Numerous scientific studies have been done on abstinence-only sex education programs, and many, if not most, show a direct correlation to an abstinence-only approach and higher rates of teen births. Conversely, states adopting a comprehensive sex education curriculum that includes discussion of STD prevention and birth control have lower rates of teen births.

But, what does science, really know, anyway?

Sadly, in Tennessee, not much apparently. In April, Tennessee legislators passed a law that effectively allows teachers to skip over evolutionary “theories” such as evolution or global warming, thereby “protecting” the educators who do not believe in these “theories.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the national Association of Biology Teachers, the Tennessee Science Teachers Association, and the ACLU of Tennessee all vehemently opposed the bill. In a move that disappointed both opponents and supporters, Haslam chose not to sign the bill but allowed it to become a law anyway. 

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