Is anti-gay bullying protected under freedom of religion? According to lawmakers in Michigan, it is. The Republican-controlled state Senate passed an “anti-bullying” bill Wednesday that would allow students, teachers, and other school employees to claim they are justified in harassing others because of “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
The bill, which awaits approval in the GOP-dominated Michigan House of Representatives, is called “Matt’s Safe School Law” in honor of a bullied student who committed suicide, but the exemption in the text of the bill would actually do more to protect bullies than their victims. The ramifications for LGBT students are particularly frightening, since now the cruelty of those who bully them will be excused under the guise of religious beliefs that homosexuality is wrong.
The issue is clearly split along party lines; conservative politicians in Michigan have long opposed anti-bullying legislation that would effectively protect students and not the people who harass them. Amy Sullivan writes in Time‘s Swampland blog:
Michigan is already one of only three states in the country that have not enacted any form of anti-bullying legislation. For more than a decade, Democrats in the state legislature have fought their Republican colleagues and social conservatives such as Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, who referred to anti-bullying measures as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda.” In that time, at least ten Michigan students who were victims of bullying have killed themselves.
This year, Republicans only agreed to consider an anti-bullying measure that did not require school districts to report bullying incidents, did not include any provisions for enforcement or teacher training, and did not hold administrators accountable if they fail to act. And they fought back Democratic attempts to enumerate particular types of students who are prone to being bullied, such as religious and racial minorities, and gay students. But it was the addition of special protections for religiously-motivated bullying that led all 11 Democratic senators to vote against the legislation they had long championed.
The Michigan bill is a stark reminder of what happens when religious ideology spills over into government. If the bill passes the state House, Michigan schoolchildren will face a higher risk of bullying, with impunity for the perpetrators. Schools will undoubtedly become safer for narrow-minded people and much more dangerous for gay or other minority students — yet another example of the GOP’s regressive social policies.
Watch Democratic Leader Sen. Gretchen Whitmer’s impassioned plea for stricter anti-bullying legislation.