Everyone knows that bullying is wrong. It is awful to be bullied and a person who is a bully isn’t exactly a poster-child for a happy and healthy well-adjusted individual. There has to be something wrong with you to have such callous disdain for other people.
That is, unless your disdain is born out of “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.” Then it’s totally okay. Bully away. The Republicans in the Michigan Senate have your back, or at least the 26 Republicans who voted in favor of Michigan Senate Bill 137 do, which requires school districts to implement anti-bullying policies but goes out of its way to protect the people doing the bullying, not the people getting bullied. Only 11 senators voted against it. They were all Democrats.
The anti-bullying law that has been bouncing around the Michigan legislature for years is often called Matt’s Safe School Law, named after Matthew Epling, an East Lansing freshman who was driven to suicide by bullying in 2002. Matt’s father, who has been advocating for this bill since its inception, is none too pleased about the Senate-added bully protection clause.
“They kind of snuck in this extra paragraph, really kind of setting apart kids that feel their religious beliefs, their moral convictions, basically, can allow them to bully,” Kevin Epling told ABC News. “That one paragraph, though, negates most of the things that we tried to put in.”
That “extra paragraph” states that the bill “does not abridge the rights under the First Amendment … of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian” and that it “does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”
It’s kind of hard to imagine why a legislative body would want to yank the fangs out of a measure initially designed to protect children. That is, until you consider that Michigan is one of the few states that doesn’t have an anti-bullying law due, in large part, to anti-gay advocates who have fought against such a measure for years fearing that it would violate the religious freedom of anti-gay students, as if any religion has fag-bashing as an officially sanctioned tenet that schools are obligated to protect.
According to state Sen. Rick Jones, the bill’s sponsor, people kicking up a fuss about the bill have it all wrong. “There were some caucus members who worried that if a child stood up in sex education class or speech class and made a statement: ‘In my religion, I don’t believe in gay marriage,’ or something, they didn’t want the child to be evicted from school for just making a statement,” he told ABC News. “Nothing in the bill is intended that the child could confront another child and abuse them in any way.”
I agree that a kid shouldn’t be kicked out of school for declaring he doesn’t “believe in” gay marriage, even though that’s as nonsensical as saying, “I don’t believe in oranges.” We’re not talking about Santa Claus, people. Gay marriage and oranges are real, whether you like them or not.
Of course, the real problem isn’t over a hypothetical argument over gay marriage. It’s the things that the bill’s ambiguous language certainly covers. I mean, after all, couldn’t Fred Phelps argue that “God hates fags” is a “statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction”? Wouldn’t this bill protect a bully telling a suspected gay classmate that homosexuals should be stoned to death? Or telling a lesbian to rot in Hell? Or taunting a gay student by calling him a child molester? And don’t these statements create the kind of climate that so many LGBT students have found intolerable to the point of suicide?
Even consider the fact that Michigan’s Republican-controlled legislature has been no friend to the state’s LGBT citizens, it’s alarming that all of the Senate’s GOP members were willing to reach into this big shit pile of a bill and get their hands dirty.
The good news is the Michigan House isn’t going for it and even House Republicans are in favor of nixing the religious exemption language. Whether they’ll actually pass the bill afterwards remains to be seen.