Stockard on the Stump: State leaders ready to insert religion into government

February 10, 2023 6:02 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

The Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, the religious arm of Gov. Bill Lee’s administration, is on the verge of getting state money to fund operations and provide grants to groups across the state.

The House Departments and Agencies Subcommittee this week approved HB327, sponsored by House Majority Leader William Lamberth, sending it to the State Government Committee for a Feb. 15 vote.

The measure removes the requirement that nonprofit partners use their own revenue to cover costs and ends a prohibition on a state employee benefitting from the nonprofit partner’s activities. In addition, it removes the statement of the General Assembly’s intent that the state not “realize any increased cost” from the agency’s efforts.

The governor put $1.2 million into his fiscal 2023-24 budget plan to run the office. It’s unclear whether more money will be directed by the office to faith-based organizations.

State Rep. Jason Zachary, R-Knoxville, told the subcommittee this week the legislation allows the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives to be included in the state budget if the Legislature chooses to appropriate money to it.

After Republican Rep. Jason Zachary of Knoxville argued the U.S. Constitution does not include language on the separation of church and state, Nashville Democrat Bill Beck replied — referring to colonists’s escape to pursue religious freedom centuries ago — “This is not England, this is the reason we left England.”

Democratic Rep. Bill Beck, D-Nashville, pointed out that when the governor started the office, it wasn’t to receive any state funding.

Zachary agreed but pointed out it has become challenging for the office to bring in outside money and still help with grant writing and ministries such as Volunteer Hope and Tennessee Fosters Hope. He says the office also has gotten involved with the Department of Children’s Services and Department of Correction.

“They’ve taken on so many roles to be that conduit between the faith-based community that it’s really limited the effectiveness of the office by having to raise private funds,” Zachary says.

Asked by Beck whether state money could go to all faith-based groups, including Hindus and Muslims, Zachary conceded that any faith-based organization could receive funds.

In spite of Beck’s protest that the move “blurs the line” separating church and state, Zachary argued that such language is not in the U.S. Constitution and that Thomas Jefferson simply included it in a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1803.

Back reiterated his opposition to the bill Thursday.

“This is not England, this is the reason we left England,” Beck says, referring to colonists’ escape to pursue religious freedom centuries ago.

A Nashville attorney, Beck points out the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently upheld the concept of “separation of church and state.” The current court, though, appears ready to relegate the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause to the scrap heap of American jurisprudence. Those protect against government endorsement and imposition of religion and ensure the right to worship.

House Republican leaders are ready to follow.

Lamberth “absolutely” supports funding the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, and so does House Speaker Cameron Sexton.

The speaker contends money has been going into the office for four years.

“(Gov. Lee’s) put money in it because people have been employed by it. There’s money in it already. It’s faith-based,” Sexton says.

Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton: "What's wrong with talking about God in public places?" (Photo: John Partipilo)
Speaker of the House Cameron Sexton: “What’s wrong with talking about God in public places?” (Photo: John Partipilo)

According to the state Division of Budget, though, the $1.2 million in the governor’s budget is a grant because the office isn’t a state agency and hasn’t received any state money since it started four years ago, only private donations.

The Speaker, nevertheless, contends that the nation’s founders built the country on religious principles and argues that at one point Bibles were used in school classrooms.

“You have associations out there that are faith-based. What is wrong with talking about God in public places?” Sexton continues.

The U.S. Supreme Court eventually found required Bible classes and school-sponsored prayer to be unconstitutional, though football game prayers by a volunteer assistant coach received a nod from the court in a recent ruling.

Lamberth, meanwhile, argues that religion is being forced on no one in this case.

“Faith is an important part of who we are as Americans. To ignore faith, in my personal opinion, would be to cut off an entire section of our culture and our communities,” Lamberth says. “Our hometown churches, our small religious organizations, they’re integral to our communities, so to not work with those organizations would actually do the opposite of what folks are worried about. It would ignore the importance of faith to so many Americans.”

Adam Kleinheider, spokesman for Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, points out that while constitutional restrictions exist on using state money to “explicitly promote religion, that is not what is happening here.”

“Organizations with a faith-based component do a wide variety of wonderful things for our citizens. There is nothing wrong with using state funds to administer an office that interacts with such organizations,” Kleinheider says.

The governor’s office didn’t respond to a request for a list of groups the faith-based office works with. But TN Fosters Hope is to receive more than $10 million next fiscal year through the Finance and Administration Departments. 

It’s an effort by state agencies, community organizations, business groups and houses of worship to improve care and opportunities for foster care children and families. Others highlighted on the state’s website are Tennessee Kids Belong, which is designed to help children in foster care, Show Hope, a movement to care for orphans, and Both Hands, which holds service events for foster and adoptive families. The state also touts efforts during the 2020 tornado and work to battle human trafficking on its site.

Gov. Bill Lee’s office did not respond to a request for a list of groups his office of faith-based initiatives works with.

These programs sound great. But why did this start so innocently and now require tax dollars? If nonprofit groups work better than state government, as the governor often says, why do they need tax dollars to function?

And, what happens if a group’s request for funding is rejected because of its religion? The state will wind up in court, as it does with so many other things that are constitutionally suspect, costing Tennesseans more money in legal fees. 

The bigger question is this, though: Why have foster children been sleeping in state office buildings and shuffled from home to home for the last year and a half when this office is working so diligently with nonprofit groups to save them?

Maybe we need to know more about how this office works and where the money is going, because regardless of where you stand on injecting religion into state government, that never should have happened to any child.

“Better save the women and children first”

You’ve heard of being dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century. It’s typically reserved for those who don’t understand technology, such as how to download an app on a cell phone.

In Tennessee, it will soon apply to those who might get titillated by taking a child to a drag show.

Granted, Senate Bill 3, which passed Thursday on a 26-6 vote in the upper chamber, doesn’t mention “drag shows.” But we all know what it’s designed to stop. They tell me a big event is held every year in Jackson.

What the bill does say is it’s an offense — not offensive — for a person to “engage” in adult cabaret entertainment on public property or in a location where the entertainment could be seen by a child, someone under 18.

The Big Drag Bus, a Nashville transpotainment vehicle, offers tours of Nashville and crowd singalongs. (Photo: John Partipilo)
The Big Drag Bus, a Nashville transpotainment vehicle, offers tours of Nashville and crowd singalongs. (Photo: John Partipilo)

The first offense is a Class A misdemeanor and the second is a Class E felony. Apparently, we have so much space in our state prisons, we need to fill some beds. I won’t go any further on that angle. Or, maybe the Republican supermajority is just trying to flex its muscles against those dratted drag queens.

Though Democrats argued that it could affect men who wear kilts to weddings such as the husband of state Sen. Heidi Campbell, a group of TSU dancers or even powder puff football game cheerleaders, those rowdy boys who might make sexually suggestive movements, Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson shrugged off those suggestions, saying the bill has been “mischaracterized.” He contends it applies only to shows that would appeal to the “prurient,” shameful or morbid interests of minors and lack serious literary or otherwise productive purposes. So much for condemning Shakespeare.

“This just highlights the absurdity of attempting to police people’s thoughts,” Campbell says. “As a matter of fact, this is the beginning of the same policies women in Iran are risking their lives to oppose by being forced to wear burqas.”

She argues that such actions are covered already under federal law. But we don’t need the federal government telling us what to do in Tennessee.

Johnson pretty much ignored those complaints, saying the test is whether shows are “harmful to a minor” through nudity, sexual excitement, excess violence or sadomasochistic abuse using community standards.

“To everyone else who wants to stand up and talk about kissing their husband at their wedding wearing a kilt, again, I’m going to refer you back to what I said in the opening stand,” Johnson says, explaining in the Senate chamber he could go on all day.

This stuff started when someone sent senators video of an over-the-top show in which a grown man was simulating sex acts in front of children. Clearly, nobody supports that. But shouldn’t we arrest the parents, too, for taking their child to such a show?

As a matter of fact, this is the beginning of the same policies women in Iran are risking their lives to oppose by being forced to wear burqas.

– Sen. Heidi Campbell, D-Nashville, said of whether or not powder puff football games could fall under the drag law.

Says Sen. Kerry Roberts, the moral conscience of the Senate, “To watch a child take a dollar bill and put it in the g-string of that performer was just too much.” He says it’s time to tell district attorneys the state isn’t going to “tolerate” such activity.

As if district attorneys general don’t have enough people to prosecute and police officers enough wackos and wife beaters to arrest, they’ll be spending their nights infiltrating drag shows to make sure no one under 18 – or 21 – slips in.

Oh well, as long as they don’t start joining the dancers, everything should be OK. But who knows? 

We don’t need no stinking diversity

University of Tennessee Board of Trustees member Brad Box and Lang Wiseman, the governor’s former deputy and chief counsel, might have thought they were going to slide into their UT board seats again when they went before the Senate Education Committee this week.

They were wrong.

Sen. Mark Pody, who sponsored a bus to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, and Sen. Joey Hensley, who was suspended as a physician for illicit activities with his cousin, called them out for allowing the University of Tennessee to expand a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Department that costs some $3 million, just six years after it was spending only about $450,000 on those matters and after the Legislature told it to stop such events as “Sex Week” at UT-Knoxville.

We won’t get into the hypocrisy on the part of Hensley. But suffice it to say most students hit The Strip on Cumberland Avenue looking for more than dollar beer night.

Fox and Wiseman did an admirable job of defending themselves, saying their job is to set policy and let President Randy Boyd and campus chancellors run the system. It was a little disconcerting that Fox didn’t recall more about the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion policies on campus, even though he pointed out that the viewpoints of his daughter, a UT student and “conservative Christian,” are protected through the program.

Sen. Raumesh Akbari gave a little balance to the proceedings, too, saying in the wake of the George Floyd murder, diversity and equity should be made a hallmark.

Sen. Mark Pody, who sponsored a bus to the Jan. 6 U.S. Capitol riot, and Sen. Joey Hensley, who was suspended as a physician for illicit activities with his cousin, grilled two University of Tennessee board members — formerly on the staff of Gov. Bill Lee — over the school’s diversity efforts. 

Boyd also defended himself and the diversity policies afterward.

“All questions are fair. And I think our trustees gave fair answers, that we believe in diversity … to support all students to make sure they feel safe and included and create an environment for them to be successful. And that’s something I’ll stand by every day,” Boyd says.

With a $2.7 billion budget, $3 million to help students is “fairly small,” Boyd says, “and it serves a great purpose.”

Now can we move on from Sex Week, because most people know every week at college is dedicated to sex – unless something has changed in the last 40 years.

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Sam Stockard
Sam Stockard

Sam Stockard is a veteran Tennessee reporter and editor, having written for the Daily News Journal in Murfreesboro, where he served as lead editor when the paper won an award for being the state's best Sunday newspaper two years in a row. He has led the Capitol Hill bureau for The Daily Memphian. His awards include Best Single Editorial and Best Single Feature from the Tennessee Press Association.