Written by Martha Kempner for RHRealityCheck.org – News, commentary and community for reproductive health and justice.

Over the last few weeks, Tennessee lawmakers have been working on legislation that would effectively make it illegal for teachers to talk about homosexuality in the classroom before ninth grade. The laws states that “No public elementary or middle school shall provide any instruction or material that discusses sexual orientation other than heterosexuality” in grades K-8. While they went back and forth with amendments and counter amendments, the Senate education committee ultimately passed the bill which has been proposed by its sponsor for each of the last six years. The full Senate will likely vote on the measure this week or next. 

Not surprisingly, some people applauded the bill for keeping “inappropriate” topics away from young children while others called it censorship and discrimination. Some people in the state questioned why the bill was necessary as, according to one lawmaker, the “existing laws already prohibits such instruction by deeming it a misdemeanor to teach any sex education that is not part of the ‘family life curriculum’ adopted by the state Board of Education.”  Many just wondered how such a law could work and why a state legislature would get that intimately involved in what teachers can and cannot say in the classroom.

But we shouldn’t be shocked or even surprised by this. State lawmakers have had their hands and voices in sex education classes for years.  In truth, it is not entirely outside their purview to do so.  While specific decisions about curricula and lecture topics are often left up to local school boards and even principals and teachers, laws in most states set the stage for sexuality education. States routinely tell schools what they have to teach and what they can’t teach. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 20 states and the District of Columbia mandate both sex education and HIV education and 12 states mandate HIV education alone (interestingly, no state mandates just sex education).  In addition, 29 states say that if such education is taught it must meet certain requirements such as being age-appropriate and/or medically accurate. 

Read more