Michigan's recent anti-bullying bill debate has moved one step forward and two steps back for actual protection against bullying in the state's schools. The anti-bullying bill, is named "Matt's Safe School Law" for Matt Epling of East Lansing, Michigan who committed suicide after being bullied. Like all anti-bullying efforts, the goal of the bill is to protect those who are vulnerable to attack and create a safer and more humane environment for all children in schools.
Unfortunately, the state's Senate Republicans added language to the bill to establish that schools could 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."
What kind of 'sincerely held belief' would lead someone to bully? The clause added by the Republican Senators is none-too-subtly coded language specifically aimed at protecting anti-LGBT intimidation and hostility; cloaked in the rhetoric of freedom of religion. As Amy Sullivan explained convincingly in her piece on the Michigan bill in Time magazine:
"...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."
As we have become painfully aware in the last year, there is an epidemic of bullying across the country that has made laws like the one Michigan is working on so important. Too often, the victim is perceived as LGBT identified -- whether they are in reality or not. The It Gets Better campaign was aimed specifically at LGBT youth in hopes of avoiding suicide resulting from the physical or psychological trauma of bullying. Recently I watched a video of a young gay student ambushed and assaulted in an Ohio high school testifying to the ugly truth that violence against LGBT youth is shocking and real.
Which makes the effort of these senators to add the 'sincere belief' clause even more disgusting. The idea that religious beliefs require special provision within a law meant to protect the most vulnerable should be an affront to all religious people. It is an affront to me as a Baptist minister. The bill intimates that we people of faith require special loopholes for our irresistible urges to bully people based on our very, very sincerely held beliefs.
Laws to protect religious freedom should be aimed at leaving religious people alone to practice our beliefs in what ever way we choose. Yet they must simultaneously protect the LGBT school child to practice his or her beliefs in whatever way he or she chooses -- including ways that others may disagree with. Nobody has the right to harass and bully.
Any anti-bullying legislation must be the same for all people. Get rid of the loophole for religious beliefs. It is insulting and wrong.