Michigan Outlaws Bullying, Unless It's 'Religiously Or Morally Motivated'


Last week, Michigan finally passed anti-bullying legislation, but don’t break out the party hats and start blaring the Lady Gaga music just yet. At the last minute, Republicans inserted a line into the legislation that exempts anyone who makes a comment based on their religious beliefs. Republicans say they’re against seeing children get taunted, but felt it was important to protect the right to tell a gay kid that they’re going to rot in hell.

Michigan lawmakers have been battling for years over enacting anti-bullying legislation, and the Detroit News reports that last week the state senate finally let the law pass after adding this paragraph:

“This section does not abridge the rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States or under Article 1 of the state Constitution of 1963 of a school employee, school volunteers, or a pupil’s parent or guardian. This section 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.”

The bill passed 26-11 with every Democrat voting against it. The legislation is named “Matt’s Safe School Law,” and even the father of the boy its named for says the exemption is wrong. Kevin Epling, whose 14-year-old son killed himself in 2002 after being harassed by bullies, said he’s “ashamed” of the bill, adding that the law:

“Would basically say it is okay to bully or to ignore instances of bullying based on your own religious beliefs and/or moral convictions, which is contrary to the rest of the bill and it is definitely contrary to what I’ve been telling students, to step in and step up when they see this taking place in their school. As a society, we need to decrease the bystander effect, those who sit idly by and watch as things happen.”

In response to the controversy, State Senator Rick Jones said, “I don’t believe for one minute that is the intent of this legislation … Certainly a child should not be allowed to go up to another child and say he’s going to hell.” However it’s hard to imagine what purpose the exeption serves if it isn’t to protect students who believe homosexuality is a sin. As Amy Sullivan writes in Time,

The same religious conservatives who applaud the religious exemption in Michigan’s anti-bullying bill would be appalled if it protected a Muslim student in Dearborn who defended bullying a Christian classmate by saying he considered her an infidel.

The Democrats actually attempted name specific groups protected by the bill, inlcuding religious and racial minorities and LGBT students, since that makes this type of legislation stand up better in court, but Republicans blocked their efforts. Michigan’s house of representative can still edit the bill, but since that body has a Republican majority it’s unclear what they’ll do. Michigan is currently one of only three states that doesn’t have anti-bullying legislation, and if the bill passes as is, it may be the only state with a law that specifically protects anti-gay bullies rather than their victims.

Michigan Senate OKs Anti-Bullying Bill Despite Protests [Detroit News]
Anti-Bullying Legislation Attacked For Allowing Bullying [Washington Post]
Why Does Michigan’s Anti-Bullying Bill Protect Religious Tormenters? [Time]

Image via Mikael Damkier/Shutterstock.

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