A new poll from Vanderbilt University shows that support for legally recognizing same-sex couples continues to grow in Tennessee, but at rates slower than the rest of the country. A 49 percent plurality now support civil unions or marriage equality, while 46 percent remain opposed to both. Still, 62 percent believe that gays and lesbians should receive health insurance and other employee benefits for their partners, while only 31 percent oppose that idea.
Screenshot of Barry West's Facebook post (Photo Credit: The Tennessean)
A Tennessee County Commissioner doesn’t see anything wrong with a Facebook post he put up that led to Muslims feeling threatened.
The photo was posted to Coffee County commissioner Barry West‘s Facebook page, drawing consternation from Muslim groups who came across the image. In the photo, seen at the right, a double-barreled shotgun is pointed at the viewer with the caption “HOW TO WINK AT A MUSLIM.” The image soon went viral, causing West to take down the original post from his page.
The Tennessean reached out to West and the commissioner not only isn’t sorry about posting the picture, he doesn’t believe he deserves to be singled out:
West, who lives in Manchester, removed it about an hour later. He did not apologize, instead questioning how his tweet had become the focus of attention.
West responded with this email: “No I did not Twitter this … no I did not create this picture … yes I shared it … so why am I being singled out?”
“I’m prejudiced against anyone who’s trying to tear down this country, Muslims, Mexicans, anybody,” he said in an interview with the local Tullahoma News, adding, “If you come into this country illegally or harm us or take away benefits, I’m against it.” West also claimed in that the post was meant to be funny, and that he doesn’t hold anything against Muslims “per se, but if you’re trying to tear down this country, find somewhere else to go.”
West’s post was taken quite seriously among the Muslims who viewed it, particularly those in Tennessee who have faced down Islamophobia over the past several years. A mosque in Murfreesboro, TN, gained widespread attention when residents attempted to block its construction, going so far as to set the site on fire. The mosque only managed to complete construction and opened after a federal judge ordered residents to stand aside. The Murfreesburo site was just one of several Islamic centers in Tennessee subjected to arson and vandalism over the past five years.
In the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings, Islamophobia has seen aresurgence in the United States. A Northern Virginia cab driver was allegedly assaulted on Friday because he shared the same religion as the suspects in the Boston attack. At least two other Muslims have been the targets of such violence in recent weeks.
Tennessee State Sen. Stacey Campfield (R) took to his personal blog Sunday to mock U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), suggesting that she and other reformers should now be focusing on a ban on pressure cookers. And when criticized for his insensitivity to the Boston Marathon victims, Campfield doubled-down on the claims, crying “double standard.”
Campfield’s original post featured a photo of a pressure cooker, similar to that used by the Boston Marathon bombers, and the title “assault pressure cooker.” Campfield captioned the post, “Here comes Feinstein again.”
In a Monday followup, titled “Inappropriate? Me? Never.” Campfield wrote:
Really? If my post was inappropriate talking about “crock pot control” then where is the outrage from the left when they push for gun control after the Sandy Hook shooting? Im sorry if I exposed your double standard…. Well, not really.
On Thursday, State Rep. Stacey Campfield (R-TN) withdrew his widely criticized bill to reduce welfare assistance for needy families if their children did not perform well in school. The state Senate would have voted on the measure this afternoon, but Campfield pulled the bill after his Republican colleagues refused to support it. Many children’s advocacy groups, lawmakers, and clergy have expressed concern over the plan to cut Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF) benefits by 30 percent for students who did poorly in school.
As Campfield walked to the Senate chambers, he was presented with a petition of more than 2500 signatures collected by Clergy for Justice to protest the bill. The deliverer of the petition was an 8-year-old girl, Aamira Fetuga, whose mother, Rasheedat Fetuga, is the founder of a local child advocacy group.
As Aamira prepared to explain to Campfield why she was worried about his bill, Campfield dismissed her as a “prop” and hurried away, repeating over and over again, “Using children as props is shameful” as Aamira and her mother tried to talk to him.
Watch it [courtesy of Eric Patton and Clergy For Justice]:
Aamira eventually told Campfield, “I don’t like the way you take the benefits from people…I’m worried about the light bills getting cut off.” Later in the video, one of Campfield’s constituents tried to talk to him about his disapproval for the bill, only to be dismissed as a “union thug” by the state senator.
Campfield’s plan sparked outrage from a wide range of advocates and politicians who decried the burden it placed on already disadvantaged children. Campfield suggested it would be simple enough for parents to restore their benefits by attending 2 parent-teacher conferences or hiring a tutor, failing to appreciate the time and money constraints on these already strained families.
During the session, many of Campfield’s fellow Republicans stood up one by one to call the measure “troublesome” and express concern about the “unintended consequences” that could put children in danger. State Senator Doug Overbey (R) had a change of heart after hearing from teachers and the state’s Commission On Children And Youth:
I voted for the bill in the General Welfare committee because I thought it was a step in addressing a problem. Since that time, other information has come to my attention. First of all, there’s been comments about how folks in our educational system feel about it. Just this morning I got an email from a teacher in my district that said, ‘Teachers have expressed interest in some form of parent accountability but I can assure you this is not what they had in mind.’ Secondly, I found on my desk a letter from the Tennessee Commission on Children and Youth…a 2 1/4 page analysis of this legislation and ultimately urges voting against it.
Once it became clear he could not get enough votes to pass the measure, Campfield asked that his bill go to a summer study committtee before the vote.
The Tennessee Senate will vote Thursday on a controversial bill to reduce temporary welfare assistance to needy families if their children are not making progress in school.
Its Republican sponsors, state Sen. Stacey Campfield and state Rep. Vance Dennis, argue that revoking Temporary Assistance For Needy Families (TANF) benefits from these parents will force them to take an interest in their children’s schoolwork. But the bill has been widely criticized by social justice advocates and by clergy for placing a family’s financial burden squarely on children. ThinkProgress spoke to State Rep. Gloria Johnson (D-TN), who teaches children with behavioral and emotional disabilities in Knox County. Informed by 25 years of classroom experience, Johnson is convinced penalizing families for children’s performance can only worsen the problem the bill is supposed to address.
“Pretty much everyone in my class will be affected by this,” Johnson said.
The bill exempts children with diagnosed disabilities, ignoring the many disabled children who go for years without being diagnosed. Furthermore, Johnson explained, many severely disabled children do not have low enough IQs to qualify as mentally handicapped, but also cannot be diagnosed with a learning disability as there is no disparity between their capability and their performance. Johnson also worries that her students, many of whom have behavioral issues stemming from abuse, will be exposed to yet more abuse at home if they cannot get their grades up. “Teachers have told me, knowing families where there’s abuse in the home, they will not fail the students,” Johnson said.
Parents would have their TANF assistance restored if they attend parenting classes or get their kids tutoring, expensive and time-consuming conditions Johnson deems deeply unrealistic. “Because I deal with kids who have emotional disabilities, there’s a lot of mental illness in the homes as well. We’ve got mental illness, we’ve got parents working two minimum wage jobs, or single parents,” Johnson explained. “And [Republicans] act as if these things are so easy to do like giving tutoring or coming to teacher conferences.”
As Tennessee prepares to consider two bills to reduce welfare assistance for needy families whose children are not doing well in school, a Change.org petition has popped up to fight the measure. The petition was started by Clergy for Justice, a Tennesse-based organization of clergy that has previously advocated for causes including immigration reform, health care, and anti-bullying laws. Within 36 hours, their petition garnered over 2,000 supporters from at least 145 cities and towns in Tennessee.
HB 0261 and SB 0132 would make family benefits from the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program conditional on a child’s educational performance. While Tennessee already ties welfare assistance to students’ attendance, this new proposal would essentially make poor children responsible for keeping their families afloat.
In an email to ThinkProgress, Clergy For Justice co-organizer Kathy Chambers highlighted one petition comment by Melissa Jennings, a former TANF recipient who pointed out that the bill penalizes children who are already being left behind by schools:
The public school system fails our kids time and time again, not reaching out to the children that need it, not being available to tutor, and leaving behind the children that may need just a little more time to catch on to something. The children’s grades are just as much a responsibility of the teachers and the school system – thus the government – as it is the parents and the children themselves. [...]
I have been on assistance since I was laid off 3 years ago, and chose to go back to school. If not for that help, my children and I would have starved. I have not been through a drive through or eaten a restaurant in over 2 years. [...] My kids don’t get to go to McDonald’s or Dairy Queen, but that assistance has provided me the only way I have to “treat” my kids, and cook them healthy meals.
Furthermore, the school is ALWAYS having parents bring in food for this or that, on sports teams there are snack schedules parents are assigned to, and for holidays each child is supposed to bring in certain food items, or for culture/history projects, they are required to cook certain dishes for the class. For over the half of the school year, my children could not participate in any of it, grades suffered for it, and the embarrassment for them was heartbreaking. This assistance has allowed me to allow them to “fit-in” and take part in what is asked of them.
Now I am graduating in 1 month, as a provider to the community, and will more than pay back my share of the benefits given to my family. It has been a needed and appreciated stepping stone for me, and not everyone abuses the system. I will gladly pay my share of taxes to help support those in need, because if my fellow community had not done the same for me, what would my kids have done?
Research shows that children from impoverished homes tend to struggle more in school than children from economically secure households. Social and economic instability during formative years can cause chronic stress and stunt basic skills other children take for granted. As one petition signatory, a former teacher, noted, “I have seen first hand what lack of food does to a child in an educational setting. When you are hungry, you cannot learn. It is just that simple.” Threatening to cut off a family’s already meager source of sustenance can only harm children’s educational prospects, not improve them.
Several conservative lawmakers in Tennessee are throwing the brakes on a fast-moving bill that would divert money away from public schools and towards vouchers for students to attend private or parochial schools. Republicans are taking a second look at the bill after the possibility arose that some Islamic schools could apply for the same funding made available to other religious schools.
The bill is a top priority for Republican Governor Bill Haslam, but several anti-religion lawmakers in the state senate, led by Sen. Bill Ketron who sponsored several anti-Islam bills in the last few years, are hoping to strip away the ability for any school that caters to Muslim children and their families to receive public dollars:
“This is an issue we must address,” state Sen. Jim Tracy (R-Shelbyville) said. “I don’t know whether we can simply amend the bill in such a way that will fix the issue at this point.”
State Sen. Bill Ketron (R-Murfreesboro) and Tracy each expressed their concerns Friday over Senate Bill 0196, commonly called the “School Voucher Bill” and sponsored by fellow Sen. Mark Norris (R-Collierville), which would give parents of children attending failing public schools a voucher with which to enroll in a private school.
Ketron has cultivated a reputation as the state’s chief Islamophobe, proposing a bill in 2011 that could have introduced punishments of up to 15 years in jail for any Muslim who observed the holy month of Ramadan or prayed five times a day towards Mecca, a religious requirement for observant Muslims.
Tennessee is not the first state to try and carve out exemptions to education funding that target only Muslims. Last year, Louisiana Republicans threatened to hold up an education bill backed by Governor Bobby Jindal (R) for similar reasons: a single private Islamic school had applied for a handful of vouchers that Republicans intended to make available only to nondenominational and Judeo-Christian schools. That bill ultimately passed and was signed into law but only after the school — the Islamic School of Greater New Orleans — withdrew its application for vouchers.
Late Wednesday afternoon, Tennessee State Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris (R) announced that he was pulling Gov. Haslam’s vouchers bill from the floor. Several Republicans in the senate had been pushing Haslam to support an expansion of the vouchers program to include eligibility for thousands more students in the state, and not just those from low-income school districts. Outside groups had poured thousands of dollars into ads supporting the expansion, but Haslam remained opposed to raising the $43,000 income cutoff for a family of four to $75,000. “In other words, it was more about … politics than education,” Norris told the Associated Press.
Two Tennessee lawmakers introduced legislation that would tie welfare assistance under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program to the educational performance of students who benefit from it, and the legislation was approved by committees in both the state House and Senate last week.
Under the legislation brought by two Republicans, a student who doesn’t not make “satisfactory progress” in school would cost his or her family up to 30 percent of its welfare assistance, the Knoxville News and Sentinel reported:
The bill is sponsored by Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, and Rep. Vance Dennis, R-Savannah. It calls for a 30 percent reduction in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits to parents whose children are not making satisfactory progress in school.
As amended, it would not apply when a child has a handicap or learning disability or when the parent takes steps to try improving the youngster’s school performance — such as signing up for a “parenting class,” arranging a tutoring program or attending a parent-teacher conference.
When Campfield introduced the legislation in January, he said parents have “gotten away with doing absolutely nothing to help their children” in school. “That’s child abuse to me,” he added. Tennessee already ties welfare to education by mandating a 20 percent cut in benefits if students do not meet attendance standards, but this change would place the burden of maintaining benefits squarely on children, who would face costing their family much-needed assistance if they don’t keep up in school.
TANF, meanwhile, is failing students and their families. It serves fewer impoverished families and children than its predecessor did before the 1996 welfare reform law was instituted, and it especially failed during the Great Recession, when the rate of families served fell in 35 states despite increases in both poverty and unemployment. And Tennessee’s welfare program is hardly robust — the maximum benefit is $185 a month and hasn’t changed since 1996. Given that low-income students already struggle to keep up in school, further reducing the already-modest benefits they receive from TANF isn’t likely to improve educational outcomes. It could instead make them worse.
Tennessee has been a toxic place on issues of sex and gender recently, with the University of Tennessee recently caving to Fox News’ complaints and cutting funding for students’ “Sex Week” programming. This week there was some good news, however, because two anti-gay pieces of legislation died in committee.
The first was the odious “Don’t Say Gay” bill, which was originally designed to censor school officials and teachers from discussing homosexuality in grades K-8. Versions introduced this year included requirements that school counselors out LGBT students to their families or prevent counselors from providing mental health services whatsoever. The bill did not receive a second when it was moved in the House Education Subcommittee and subsequently died. State Rep. John Ragan (R), who sponsored the bill because “it was about school safety,” has promised to reintroduce it next year.
Another bill targeted institutions of higher education, threatening to cut support for campus police if universities required student groups to abide by “all-comers” nondiscrimination policies. The intention behind such measures, like one recently passed in Virginia, is to allow Christian groups to discriminate against gay students. Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper (D) called the bill unconstitutional and Gov. Bill Haslam (R) said he saw no reason to have the bill considered. Last year, he vetoed a similar bill targeting university nondiscrimination statements. The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Pody (R), took the bill “off notice,” killing it, but his apparent vendetta against Vanderbilt University’s “all-comers” policy suggests this isn’t the last of his efforts.
The death of these two bills is a nice reprieve for Tennessee’s LGBT community, but it seems neither of these fights is permanently over.
Gov. Bill Haslam (R-TN) announced on Wednesday that he will not pursue Obamacare’s optional expansion of the Medicaid program, which would extend health coverage to an additional 140,000 uninsured Tennesseans and bring in $1.4 billion in federal funding in the first year.
Eight of Haslam’s fellow Republican leaders have come out in support of this provision of the health care reform law, as partisan opposition to Obamacare’s state-level reforms is finally beginning to give way. But the Tennessee governor is standing firm in his opposition to extending public health insurance to additional low-income Americans. Instead, Haslam will seek to extend coverage to the expanded population by using federal funding to buy private insurance, an alternative to Medicaid expansion that’s enticing a growing number of Republican leaders. The Tennessee governor said he won’t push for expansion until the federal government approves that plan.
Haslam’s announcement comes on the heels of reports about the dire state of Tennessee’s Medicaid program, known as TennCare. Since there are a significant number of low-income Tennessee residents whose annual incomes put them above the cut-off for TennCare coverage, but whose expensive medical bills make them unable to afford to purchase private insurance on their own, the state holds a “health care lottery” twice a year to allow those residents to call in for a special application for TennCare. The phone lines are flooded, and many people are unable to get through. Many of those people would be eligible to gain public health insurance coverage under the Medicaid expansion, and would no longer have to desperately dial a state number in the hopes of winning an elusive lottery to access the care they need.
Despite the fact that Tennessee is a deeply Republican state with a GOP-led legislature, Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion has won some support from business and labor leaders. The state’s largest business organization, the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce & Industry, came out in support of Medicaid expansion earlier this week, explaining that ensuring health coverage for poorer Tennesseans will have a “substantial economic impact benefiting our overall economy.”