06 Nov

Why Does Michigan’s Anti-Bullying Bill Protect Religiously-motivated Bullying

By Amy Sullivan | @sullivanamy


Matt Epling Photo

(Also you may wish to read:How to Ruin a Bill in 30 Words or Less, As Taught by Republicans)

The McGlynn: How any parent could vote for a Republican is beyond my


As a transplanted Michigander, I’ve always maintained pride in my home state.
I’ve only owned American cars. I believed in the Lions even during the really
dismal years. I still point to my hand to show people which part of the state
I’m from.

But the Michigan legislature is doing its best to make me hang my head in
shame. On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled state senate passed an
anti-bullying bill that manages to protect school bullies instead of those they
victimize. It accomplishes this impressive feat by allowing students, teachers,
and other school employees to claim that “a sincerely held religious belief or
moral conviction” justifies their harassment.

(MORE: What You Need to Know About Bullying)

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

In an emotional speech on the Senate floor, Democratic Leader
Gretchen Whitmer accused her colleagues of creating a blueprint for
consequence-free bullying. “As passed today,” said Whitmer, “bullying kids is
okay if a student, parent, teacher or school employee can come up with a moral
or religious reason for doing it.”

The bill is called “Matt’s Safe School Law,” after Matt Epling, a Michigan
student who committed suicide in 2002 after enduring prolonged bullying. Matt’s
father, Kevin Epling, expressed his dismay in a Facebook post after the state
senate vote on Wednesday. “I am ashamed that this could be Michigan’s bill on
anti-bullying,” wrote Epling. “For years the line [from Republicans] has been
‘no protected classes,’ and the first thing they throw in…was a very protected
class, and limited them from repercussions of their own actions.”

(MORE: Why It’s So Hard to Tell If Your Kids Are Being Bullied)

To understand what happened in Michigan, it’s important to know that social
conservatives consider themselves the real victims. At the federal level,

they unsuccessfully fought for the inclusion of a provision
protecting religious freedom when Congress expanded the definition of a hate
crime to include crimes motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation. They also
strongly oppose legislation that would prevent discrimination against gay
individuals in the workplace, charging that such a law would endanger religious
freedom. A report on the Christian Broadcasting Network outlined one
such concern: “The special protections for gay and transgendered teachers will
make it extremely difficult for [public school] districts that might want to
remove them from the classroom.”

In other words, social conservatives believe that efforts to protect gays
from assault, discrimination or bullying impinge on their religious freedom to
express and act on their belief that homosexuality is an abomination. That’s
stating it harshly, but it is the underlying belief.

This belief, however, relies on a warped understanding of religious liberty.
Freedom of religious expression doesn’t give someone the right to kick the crap
out of a gay kid or to verbally torment her. It doesn’t give someone the right
to fire a gay employee instead of dealing with the potential discomfort of
working with him.

It’s also a highly selective conception of religious liberty. 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.

Worst of all, such abuses of the concept of religious liberty undermine
efforts to focus attention on serious threats to religious freedom. A Christian pastor in
Iran currently faces execution because he will not convert back to Islam.
China openly represses religious minorities like Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur
Muslims. Christians in Syria and Egypt continue to be targets of violence, and
Muslims in Europe face civil penalties for wearing religious garb in public.
Next to these realities, it takes a serious persecution complex to get worked up
about defending the right of a Michigan high school student to target a gay
classmate for ridicule.

The anti-bullying legislation now moves to the Michigan house of
representatives, where both religious and secular Michiganders are lobbying to
have the religious exemption stripped and reporting requirements inserted. Given
the body’s Republican majority, I’m not holding my breath. But stranger things
have happened. After all, the Lions are 6-2 so far this season.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book
The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap
(Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion
and politics, appears on every Friday.

Read more:

Kevin Epling, father of Matt Epling explains his frustration at the last minute addition of specific language in the

anti-bullying bill, Matt’s Safe School Law ( named in memory of Matt) that could actually allow bullying based on religious grounds.

Seemingly absurd? but yes it happened.

Click above image to visit Mat Epling.Com

Michigan Senators who voted for the bill. All Republicans.

Randy Richardville, Majority Leader : Monroe
Darwin L. Booher : Evart
Jack Brandenburg : Harrison Township
Tom Casperson : Escanaba
Bruce Caswell : Hillsdale

Patrick Colbeck : Canton

Our local fool. Representing?

The 7th State Senate District is located in Wayne county and
includes: Belleville city, Brownstown Twp, Canton Twp, Flat Rock
city, Gibraltar city, Grosse Ile Twp, Huron Twp, Northville city
(part), Northville Twp, Plymouth city, Plymouth Twp, Rockwood city,
Sumpter Twp, Trenton city, Van Buren Twp and Woodhaven city.

Judy K. Emmons : Sheridan
Mike Green : Mayville
Goeff Hansen : Hart
Dave Hildenbrand : Grand Rapids
Joe Hune : Hamburg
Mark C. Jansen : Gaines
Rick Jones : Grand Ledge
Roger Kahn : Saginaw
Mike Kowall : White Lake
Jim Marleau : Lake Orion
Arlan B. Meekhof : Olive Township
John Moolenaar : Midland
Mike Nofs : Jackson
John Pappageorge : Troy
Phil Pavlov : St. Clair
John Proos : St. Joseph
David B. Robertson : Grand Blanc
Tory Rocca : Sterling Heights
Tonya Schuitmaker : Lawton
Howard Walker : Traverse City

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The O'Leary

Why does Michigan’s anti-bullying law protect religiously based bullying? Because we are increasingly in the hands of fundamentalist idiots. We better start fighting back. The more successes they have, the more embolden they become.

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