Gay school bill killed in subcommittee

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More than 100 members of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP) advanced on Capitol Hill today, helping to stomp one bill to its death (view photos from the day here).

A bill proposed by state Rep. Stacey Campfield that would prohibit discussion of homosexuality in elementary and middle schools was killed by the House Education K-12 Subcommittee, with one member of the committee calling the bill an election year stunt.

Two members of the Chattanooga delegation for TEP’s day on the hill – Audra Kelly and Ardyce Mercier, III were at the hearing with their children – Nine-year-old Lilith Jackson and Ardy Mercier IV – and both said they were glad they spent the time making the trip to Nashville.

“This was the first time for us to attend the Equality Day on the Hill,” Mercier said. “It felt very good. It meant a lot for us to show our children to see how ridiculous a bill this was and to see it defeated.”

Jackson, who attends Brown Academy public magnet school in Chattanooga, sat on the front row with her two moms and her sister, and was recognized by committee member and Chattanooga Democrat Tommie Brown, who met with the family in the hallway before the meeting.

Rep. Brown asked Jackson to introduce herself to the committee, and later told committee members that “our children live in a real world” pointing out that there are many different variations of family and that curriculum decisions should be left to “experts, teachers and principals who know how to react to this.”

“If we start trying to legislate this,” she said, “we could be in serious trouble.”

Campfield sat beside Bobbie Patray, state president of the Tennessee Eagle Forum, who saved a seat for him in the standing room only committee meeting.

Speaking out against the bill were representatives from the Tennessee Education Association, the American Civil Liberties Union and the state Education Department.

All three told the committee that the bill wasn’t needed.

“It is a clear attack on one community and the ACLU is concerned that it could affect the freedom of speech,” said the ALCU of Tennessee’s Hedy Weinberg.

Rep. Ulysses Jones, Jr., D- Memphis, repeatedly asked Campfield what prompted the legislation.

“Where did this come from? What school?” Jones asked.

Campfield said he had heard complaints from two sets of parents in two school systems in his district but had not verified them and therefore would not name the schools.

Jones retorted that Campfield’s proposal had “No substance, no background, no foundation.” 

“Where did this bill come from or is it just part of your re-election year legislation,” he asked. “Off the top of your head you came with nothing for this committee.”

The committee voted to allow the state Board of Education to examine the bill, effectively killing it. Rep. Les Winningham, D-Huntsville, made the motion. Rep. Joe Towns, D-Memphis, who chairs the Subcommittee, declared the motion approved by voice vote.

“We have tried to stay away from curriculum issues and there has been absolutely no testimony that this is going on in this state,” Winningham said. “This is best left in the hands of the people setting the curriculum content. I move to refer this bill to the state Department of Education for review.”

It was then that an outraged Campfield protested, saying that he had asked Chairman Towns to take a roll call vote. Towns refused to take a roll call and ended the discussion.

“The bill is basically gone,” explained TEP lobbyist Jenny Ford.

TEP President Christopher Sanders said the bill’s defeat shows how important it is that the GLBT community becomes involved in meeting with their lawmakers. This was the fourth year the group has held its annual lobbying day.

“Look at how important it was for Rep. Brown to meet her constitutes from Chattanooga,” he said. “And it was important to have the large number of equality advocates in the committee meeting today to see the ridicule this horrible piece of legislation went through.”

Sanders said there were TEP members from all parts of the state, including Memphis (which sent a large delegation), Chattanooga, Knoxville, Murfreesboro, Lebanon, Greenville, Hermitage, Clarksville and Nashville.

“I’m so amazed to have such a large turnout,” Sanders said. “And such great geographic diversity.”

Other issues that remain on TEP’s legislative radar include adoption rights and the ability to change birth sex on a birth certificate.