Tennessee House passes stringent restrictions on pride flags in schools

Tennessee’s Republican-controlled House voted Monday to approve legislation that would largely prevent pride flags from being displayed in public school classrooms, sending the measure to the state Senate, where it is also expected to pass.

The measure, House Bill 1605, would prohibit local education agencies from displaying flags other than the United States flag and the Tennessee state flag in public schools. It would allow schools to display the POW/MIA flag, a flag that represents a city or metropolitan government or an official school flag, among other exceptions.

While the bill does not mention LGBTQ pride flags outright, GOP state lawmakers have said it is meant to restrict them.

Republican state Rep. Gino Bulso, the bill’s primary sponsor in the House, on Monday said he drafted the bill after several parents and one school board member in his district complained that “certain teachers and counselors were displaying a pride flag” in their classrooms despite objections by parents.

“When you look at the issue that’s before the body this evening, it is simply this: Do parents have the right to instill values in their own children that they agree with? I think everyone can answer that question ‘yes,’” Bulso said during Monday’s floor debate on the bill.

Tennessee Democrats responded by arguing the bill disregards the rights of LGBTQ parents and parents who support the LGBTQ community. It would also fuel stigma against LGBTQ people, particularly students, they say.

“It seems the genuine concern behind this bill is better described as preventing social representation or a sense of belonging in one’s community,” said state Rep. Aftyn Behn, a Nashville Democrat.

The exchange is emblematic of heated debates unfolding in state legislatures, city council and school board meetings across the country over whether displays of LGBTQ inclusivity or lessons about gender identity and sexual orientation belong in the classroom.

“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,” Tennessee state Rep. Jason Powell (D) said Monday. “We should be welcoming and celebrating our students, not hating on them.”

The House rejected an amendment introduced by Powell that would have clarified to school districts that they may only prohibit the display of flags that are “disruptive or materially and substantially interfere with the operation of the school.”

Tennessee lawmakers this year have filed at least 33 bills targeting LGBTQ individuals, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

The state’s Republican Gov. Bill Lee last week signed into law a measure that allows public officials to decline to solemnize marriages that don’t align with their religious beliefs, which LGBTQ rights groups have said will undermine marriage equality in the state.

Beyond prohibiting the display of pride flags, Democrats on Monday argued that Bulso’s bill would prevent schools from displaying the flag of the United Nations, a peace flag or any other flag that does not fit into one of the measure’s approved categories.

“What this bill does is narrows the gap to only allow certain flags — that’s the problem with this bill,” said state Rep. Sam Mckenzie, a Knoxville Democrat.

House Republicans ultimately voted to cut Monday’s debate short, prompting shouts from the gallery and from state Rep. Justin Jones, a Nashville Democrat who was expelled last year for joining a protest on the House floor that called for stronger gun laws. Jones was reinstated in April by the Nashville Metropolitan Council.

Jones on Monday was found out of order for “yelling out of turn,” Assistant Chief Clerk Daniel Hicks said.

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