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Social Issues Overshadow Tennessee Legislative Session

Tennessee made a bid (again) to become the nation’s most socially conservative state by voting on bills regarding school prayer, sex education, climate change and abortion.

Lots of legislatures devoted lots of time this year to social issues. But perhaps no other state was so transfixed by them as Tennessee.

Bills introduced in the state this year touched on nearly every hot-button social issue out there: school prayer, public displays of the Ten Commandments, a proposal to publish the names of doctors who provide abortions, a so-called “Don’t Say Gay” bill that would have prevented teachers from discussing homosexuality, and the imposition of fines on students who dress in an “indecent manner,” which became known as the saggy pants law.

Not all those measures became law, but Tennessee bills regarding the teaching of “controversies” surrounding evolution and climate science or barring any discussion of “gateway sex activity” that might be arousing in sex education class provided fodder for TV comedians and out-of-state newspaper editorial writers.

Such derisive attention touches on a sore spot for Tennessee, a state whose image suffered for decades after the 1925 prosecution of John T. Scopes for teaching evolution. “Every time we have an issue and Tennessee comes up, it’s always ‘son of Scopes’ or the idea that this is a sequel of some sorts,” says Charles Israel, an Auburn University historian who has written about social issues in the state.

David Fowler, a social conservative who promoted some of the education-related bills, says legislators were only reflecting public opinion. “When you look at the demographics of Tennessee, it’s a conservative state with a high percentage of its people involved in some aspect of religious life,” says Fowler, a former Tennessee legislator.

But some business executives worry that the attention given to divisive social issues presents a P.R. problem for the state. With low taxes and a light regulatory environment, Tennessee ranks among the friendliest states in which to do business, and Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has stepped up its economic development efforts.

Some prominent corporate leaders broke openly with legislators seeking to let workers bring guns into areas like company parking lots. For the most part though, it was a matter of quiet concern in a business community nervous about the image problems raised by the Legislature’s focus, says a Memphis executive. There was no desire to make such worries a matter of public debate.

After all, business groups were happy with the Legislature’s output on matters of immediate concern to them, such as limiting or eliminating certain taxes on sales, gifts and inheritance. “To the extent you’re worrying about evolution, you’re not screwing up the business environment,” says Steven Livingston, a political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University.

He goes further. Rather than a hindrance or a P.R. problem, he suggests, the media attention given to social issues may have had some “utility as a smokescreen. To the extent attention is paid to issues that don’t directly affect businesses, that takes the attention off something else,” he says. “There was significant tax reduction, state taxes gotten rid of, that got virtually no attention, as everyone paid attention to the other stuff.”

Caroline Cournoyer is GOVERNING's senior web editor.
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