Kimberly P. Yow

Kimberly P. Yow

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Tennessee House passes bill that would largely ban LGBTQ flags in public school classrooms

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The Tennessee House passed a bill on Monday that would largely ban displaying LGBTQ flags in public school classrooms.

The 70-24 vote in the Republican-controlled House sends the legislation to the Senate, where a final vote could happen as early as this week.

Republicans cut a heated debate short, leading Democratic Rep. Justin Jones to yell that House Speaker Cameron Sexton was out of order and ignoring people’s requests to speak. Republicans responded by voting Jones out of order, halting his immediate comments.

Earlier, at least two people opposing the bill were kicked out of the gallery for talking over the proceedings as Democrats and other opponents criticized the legislation as unfairly limiting a major symbol of the LGBTQ community in schools.

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“I am proud when I walk into the public schools in my city, to see the LGBTQ flag in the classrooms, proudly put up by teachers who understand the suffering that many of their students go through,” Democrat Rep. Jason Powell said. “We should be welcoming and celebrating our students, not hating on them.”

The bill defines “displaying” a flag by a school or employee as exhibiting or placing the item “anywhere students may see the object.”

The measure would allow certain flags to be displayed, with exceptions for some scenarios. Approved flags include the U.S. flag, the Tennessee flag, flags considered protected historical items under state law, as well as flags of Native American tribes, local governments’ armed forces and prisoners of war or those missing in action, other countries and their local governments, colleges or universities or the schools themselves.

Other flags could be temporarily displayed as part of a “bona fide” course curriculum. Certain groups allowed to use school buildings may also show their flags while using the grounds under the bill.

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The legislation would enforce the ban by relying on lawsuits by parents or guardians of students who attend, or are eligible to attend, public school in the district in question. The lawsuits could challenge the display of flags by a school, employee or its agents that would not fall under the proposed criteria for which flags would be allowed in classrooms.

Republican Rep. Gino Bulso, the bill’s sponsor, said parents reached out to him with complaints about “political flags” in classrooms. When asked whether the bill would allow the Confederate flag to be displayed, he said the bill would not change the current law about when such a symbol could be shown. He said the bill’s exceptions could be applied to Confederate flags for approved curriculum and certain historical items that already cannot be removed without extensive state approval.

“What we’re doing is making sure parents are the ones who are allowed to instill in their children the values they want to instill,” Bulso said.

The Senate’s version of the bill would be more restrictive about who could file a lawsuit over a flag, limiting it to students, parents or guardians of students or employees at that specific school.

Earlier this month, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to town, school and school district officials warning that under First Amendment court precedent, “public schools may prohibit private on-campus speech only insofar as it substantially interferes with or disrupts the educational environment, or interferes with the rights of other students.”

Bulso said displaying the Pride flag does not constitute protected free speech for school employees.

The bill comes as Tennessee Republicans have already moved to restrict classroom conversations about gender and sexuality, ban gender transition treatment for minors and limit events where certain drag performers are allowed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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