By Brian Wilson, The Tennessean
Gov. Bill Haslam is weighing whether to veto a pair of bills passed in the waning days of the legislative session
that have pushed social issues to the forefront at the Capitol.
Haslam is facing calls from Democrats to strike down a sex education bill that has drawn national ridicule for its focus on "gateway sexual activity"
and legislation meant to pressure Vanderbilt University into dropping an antidiscrimination policy
opposed by campus religious groups.
Haslam says he has not yet
decided whether to sign the two bills. But he expressed strong
reservations about one measure - the Vanderbilt bill - and said the
other remains under review.
Haslam has not vetoed a bill since
taking office in January 2011, and the move is rare in Tennessee because
the legislature can override vetoes with a simple majority. But any
veto issued this spring is likely to stick, as legislative leaders
expressed a willingness Tuesday to defer to the governor's judgment.
respect the governor on that," said Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, the Senate
leader. "I hope there won't be a need for that. I'll accept it."
Sex ed overhaul
House Bill 3621 would overhaul the state's sex education curriculum
and strengthen its abstinence-based message to students. The
legislation, along with the "gateway sexual activity" term featured in
it, has gained coverage from state and national media after the House
passed it 68-23 last week and the Senate passed the bill 29-1 in early
The proposed curriculum would "exclusively and
emphatically" promote abstinence, rewriting a two-decades-old code that
had been criticized after school officials in Davidson and Knox counties
talked to students about alternatives to sexual intercourse. The bill
said the new curriculum would be altered at varying levels to be
age-appropriate, and could ideally be taught from kindergarten through
The change would significantly alter what is currently
taught in local schools, said Jennifer Evetts, an award-winning
wellness teacher from Glencliff High School. She said the proposed
changes would require students to be taught only about their ideal
actions and fail to cover what students need to realistically know
about, including contraception and sexually transmitted diseases.
"All of these things need to be addressed," she said. "I need to teach them everything I can."
legislation would go beyond promoting total abstention from sex,
discouraging instructors from promoting any action that may lead to it.
Instruction in the proposed sexual education curriculum, according to
the revised legislation, could not "promote, implicitly or explicitly,
any gateway sexual activity."
The term's meaning led to some
confusion among legislators during debate, and was featured in statewide
and national media and satirized on Comedy Central's "The Colbert
Haslam told reporters shortly after lawmakers left for the summer on Tuesday that he had not yet reviewed the abstinence bill.
"I don't know enough to comment on that one yet," he said. "We'll work through everything, from the definitions on."
the bill's debate, Rep. Mike Stewart, D-Nashville, expressed concern
about what enforcing the "gateway sexual activity" policy could mean for
"While I think your bill is well-intentioned, I think
it opens up a brave new world of concern for teachers, and I think it's
problematic," he said.
According to the latest version of the
bill, gateway sexual activity "means sexual contact encouraging an
individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior." Individuals can
promote the term under the law "by encouraging, advocating, urging or
condoning gateway sexual activities."
The bill's House sponsor,
Rep. Jim Gotto, R-Hermitage, said during the bill's final debate that
the definition of "sexual contact" is found in the state criminal code.
wanted to make it clear," he said. "We wanted to make it absolutely
certain so that teachers or outside instructors would not be confused as
to what this means."
Evetts agreed with the intent of this part of the legislation.
"I don't think teachers should condone in that," she said. "A professional tone needs to be set."
Another bill on its way to the governor's desk, House Bill 3576,
was a measure approved by the House on Monday night condemning
Vanderbilt University's "all-comers" policy, which attempts to force
student organizations to accept all prospective members. The bill bans state universities
from adopting the same rules, but lawmakers also added language that
would require Vanderbilt to exempt religious organizations from its
The legislation came as a result of a policy Vanderbilt
adopted earlier this year that required on-campus students groups to
adhere to the university's non-discrimination policy and allow any
interested students to join and run for office in any organization.
Haslam has been hesitant to endorse the legislation that would affect Tennessee's largest private school.
does concern me," he said Tuesday. "I don't agree with Vanderbilt's
decision. I'll be really upfront about that. That being said, I do have
some concerns about the state telling a private institution what to do."
bill, amended on the Senate floor to include the language about
Vanderbilt, is another element of a series of discussions and protests
about the university's policy. Several religious groups have refused to
adhere to the policy and have not re-applied for official recognition
from the university.
They argue that the policy forces them to accept members and choose leaders who did not share their faith or beliefs.
While the bill would not take any state funds
away or provide a strong level of enforcement for Vanderbilt to change
its policies, its sponsor, Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, said it would
force the university to choose between exempting religious
organizations from this policy or expanding it to every student group,
including sororities and fraternities.
The legislation passed the Senate 19-12 and the House 61-22.
About the family life curriculum bill
House Bill 3621 calls for creating a "family life curriculum"
that emphasizes abstinence. It says at one point that "family life
education" means "an abstinence-centered sex education program that
builds a foundation of knowledge and skills relating to character
development, human development, decision-making, abstinence,
contraception and disease prevention."
Later, however, the bill
says the family life curriculum "shall ... exclusively and emphatically
promote sexual risk avoidance through abstinence, regardless of a
student's current or prior sexual experience."
The bill discourages school
officials from promoting "gateway sexual activity," which it defines as
"sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent
Elsewhere in the bill, "sexual contact" is defined
with a reference to the Tennessee State Code. The code defines it as
"intentional touching of another person's genital area, groin, inner
thigh, buttock or breast or the intentional touching of the clothing
covering the genital area, groin, inner thigh, buttock, or breast, if
that intentional touching can be reasonably construed as being for the
purpose of sexual arousal or gratification."