(Memphis) Lawmakers have passed a bill changing the language of how sexual education is conducted in Tennessee.
The bill, Senate Bill 3310, focuses primarily on abstinence, but allows for comparison of contraception methods. However, contraception is no longer allowed to be distributed on school property.
The confusing part is where they prohibit instructors from encouraging "gateway sexual behaviors." The bill also allows for teachers to be disciplined, and for third-party instructors to be sued, if the rules are not followed.
"Gateway sexual activity" is defined in the bill as "sexual contact encouraging an individual to engage in a non-abstinent behavior."
"Sexual contact" is further defined in another part of the Tennessee code, but not clearly defined in this bill.
Critics complained that teachers would be held liable for breaking up hugs or kisses, but Rep. John DeBerry, a supporter of the bill, said that's not true.
"I think you and I both would know when we’re looking at a kiss, and when we’re looking at, for lack of a better way of saying it, someone who is trying to open the door to more activities," DeBerry said.
But the vagueness of the provision troubles Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis Education Association.
"This is not something we’ve asked for, nor do we wish to police the sexual activities of students. That is something that squarely belongs in the home, at the churches and synagogues," Williams said.
The bill states such activity leading to sexual intercourse should not be promoted, encouraged or condoned.
If a third-party organization is invited to teach a session in a family life class and violates the rules, a parent can sue that third-party instructor for damages, plus attorney's fees and court costs.
A judge may issue a civil fine up to $500.
But parents may not sue an instructor employed by the local school district, as some earlier believed.
At least one parent said she would rather her child know everything possible about sex and protection, so that her child could make informed decisions.
"I don’t want my child hidden from nothing out here when they have to go find out the wrong way and experience it the wrong way," said April Hawthorne.
Her daughter, a student at Whitehaven High School, was shocked to find out contraception may not be available at school anymore.
Her mother said teens will be having sex regardless of how many times they're told not to; that taking away contraception on campus would only increase teen pregnancy.
Still, the message of no sex, and now no 'gateway sex', is important to lawmakers.
"You can’t have people who come in, basically, and do not include abstinence as part of our sex education," DeBerry said.
He said this bill would be a way to ensure that abstinence is a cornerstone of any sexual education.