ACLU not Happy with Free Speech in Tennessee

Against the wishes of the ACLU, Tennessee legislators passed, and the governor signed into law, a bill that clarifies students’ freedom of religious expression in class as well as at events and graduation ceremonies. The Religious Viewpoints Antidiscrimination Act will become law for the 2014-2015 school year. Critics of the law (including the ACLU) wring their hands that this will expose students to a fellow student’s specific religious beliefs as if student speakers now have the freedom to preach the Gospel and have an altar call at a graduation.

With convoluted logic, the ACLU of Tennessee asserted in a press release that suppressing religious freedom actually preserves religious freedom: “We are asking Governor Haslam to veto this bill to ensure that Tennessee schools are moving forward, welcoming all students and preserving their religious freedom.”

Huh? Does the ACLU now assert that free speech should only occur when everyone in the room agrees with the speaker?

The law amends existing state law and gives greater detail regarding the freedom students have to express their faith in homework assignments, class discussions and oral presentations. The language of the law parrots the 2003 guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Education:

“Students may express their beliefs about religion in homework, artwork, and other written and oral assignments free from discrimination based on the religious content of their submissions.”

Regarding graduation ceremonies, the law also clarifies that students have the freedom to express themselves at school events. However, it is very specific about the parameters of student speech at ceremonies. For instance, regarding graduation ceremonies, the law states:

“The subject of their addresses shall be related to the purpose of the graduation ceremony, marking and honoring the occasion, honoring the participants and those in attendance, and the student’s perspective on purpose, achievement, life, school, graduation, and looking forward to the future. The subject shall be designated for each student speaker, the student shall stay on the subject…”

The law continues regarding religious expression:

“The Local Education Agency (LEA) shall treat a student’s voluntary expression of a religious viewpoint, if any, on an otherwise permissible subject in the same manner the LEA treats a student’s voluntary expression of a secular or other viewpoint on an otherwise permissible subject and may not discriminate against a student based on the religious viewpoint expressed by the student on an otherwise permissible subject.”

Students are not employees of the state. They have First Amendment freedoms to express who they are and what they think, whether it is in a classroom speech or a graduation speech.

While religious expression at graduations tends to get a lot of press, the day-to-day power of this law is the clarity it brings to religious expression in classrooms throughout the school year. Unfortunately, it is far too common for public schools educators to believe (erroneously) that religion expression is forbidden in class. It is this “culture of censorship” that must be corrected.

My hat is off to Tennessee lawmakers for standing up for religious freedom. Now, the real task will be for local school leaders across the state to: (1) make sure their educators are well informed about the freedom students have; and (2) make sure all students from kindergarten through high school understand that they are welcome to express their faith in class.


To promote greater awareness of students’ freedom of religious expression, ask your church to distribute to its students and congregation Gateways’ pamphlet, Free to Speak: What the U.S. Department of Education say about public school students’ religious liberties.