Michigan Anti-Bullying Law Offers Anti-Gay Students A Big Fat Loophole
A newly passed law in Michigan makes bullying a crime--unless the target is a GLBT youth and the perpetrator claims to be harassing him or her out of religious convictions.
The law, named the "Matt’s Safe School Law" for a 14-year-old suicide victim who had been bullied at school, does not specify protected demographics, but it does hint at which forms of anti-gay attack will be expressly permitted. The law specifies that expressions of religious and moral belief will not be prosecuted as bullying.
One critic of the new law was Democratic State Sen. Gretchen Whitmer, noted Queerty in a Nov. 4 posting.
Just before the bill was approved, Whitmer told her fellow lawmakers that 10 youths had died by their own hand over the last 10 years in Michigan because of bullying. "But had this bill you’re going to approve today been in effect when they were alive, how many of their deaths would have been prevented?" Whitmer demanded angrily. "Zero."
Whitmer went on to tell her colleagues that they were not preventing bullying; rather, she said, "you’re explicitly outlining how to get away with bullying.
"Your exceptions have swallowed the rule," added Whitmer. "As passed today, bullying kids is okay if a student, parent, teacher, or school employee can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it.
"But bullying is not okay. We should be passing public policy that protects kids, all kids, from bullies--all bullies. But instead you’ve set us back further, creating a blueprint for bullying."
Whitmer went on to tell her fellow lawmakers that they were "papering over the problem, and added, "In fact, not only does this not protect kids that are bullied, it further endangers them by legitimizing excuses for tormenting a student.
"And the saddest and sickest irony of this whole thing is that it’s called Matt’s Safe School Law. And after the way that you’ve gutted it, it wouldn’t have done a damn thing to save Matt. This is worse than doing nothing," Whitmer continued. "It’s a Republican license to bully."
Whitmer’s characterization was not simply a partisan slam. The numbers bore out her having calling the legislation a Republican law, with all Democrats in the State Senate voting against the bill, which passed 26-11.
Whitmer was referring to language in the bill that specifically excludes expression of religious and moral convictions from prosecution. Democratic lawmakers were not the only individuals who expressed their shock and dismay that the bill would so plainly give licensed to faith-based bullying.
"I am ashamed that this could be Michigan’s bill on anti-bullying when in fact it is a ’bullying is OK in Michigan law,’ " wrote Kevin Epling, the father of the boy for whom the law is named, Matt Epling, who killed himself in 2002.
Republican lawmakers didn’t seem to think it would be problematic for the law to protect hate speech that takes the form of religious expression. Asked whether religious students--or non-religious students looking to avoid breaking the law while engaging in bullying--might take the law as an all-clear to tell their GLBT classmates they are destined to burn in Hell, Republican State Sen. Rick Jones told the Detroit News, "Certainly a child should not be allowed to go up to another child and say he’s going to Hell."
The letter of the law protects a bully who frames anti-gay language in religious terms, however.
"[I]n a change before Wednesday’s vote, Republican lawmakers added a clause ensuring that the bill ’does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held belief or moral conviction’ of a student or school worker," noted ABC News in a Nov. 4 article.
"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."
The Queerty posting theorized that faith-based bullying could be used against not only GLBT youths, but other minorities as well.
"Maybe it will also allow religious racists to harass students of color because they are afflicted with the Curse of Ham," the article speculated, referring to a Biblical story that, similar to the "Mark of Cain," has been interpreted by racists to mean that people of color are inferior to Caucasians and it is part of God’s plan for white to oppress them.
Text at Matt Epling.com excoriated the new law as providing protection for only one "special class," that of religious individuals.
"[R]ather than providing a blueprint for schools to handle the situation, they have given students an easy out to assault, harass, belittle and harm fellow students with no recourse by the schools," the text declared. "Religion should never be used as a weapon and in no circumstance should a state entity ’sanction’ violence in the name of religion."
That interpretation of the law’s likely consequences was shared by others as well.
"The bill will effectively protect school-aged children from any ’unreasonable’ bullying, but if the harassment can be justified in any way religiously or morally, the punishment for the bullying is technically illegal," noted the Bell Brook High School publication Eagle View, in a Nov. 6 article.
"This means that children of a different religious group, gender, and sexual orientation are even easier targets than they were before the passage of the bill."
Until the law’s passage, Michigan had been one of only three states not to have laws against bullying on the books. Michigan also has one of the nation’s harshest anti-gay constitutional amendments, placing not only marriage equality but also civil unions out of reach of gay and lesbian families. A court ruling held that domestic partnerships are also outlawed by the amendment, which voters approved in 2004.
In contrast to the new Michigan law, a school in West Virginia is mulling a new policy that would recognize GLBT youths as being at risk for bullying and put protections in place on their behalf, the Associated Press reported on Nov. 7.