Halting Harassment: Public School Efforts To Protect Students Run Into Religious Right Bullies

Michigan's new anti-bullying law contains a loophole for religiously-based harassment.

Many public schools are finally taking an overdue look at the problem of bullying. A number of state legislatures have even weighed in to address the issue.

That’s good news. After all, it’s impossible for a young person to do well in school if he or she is being bullied or is worried about being bullied.

In Michigan, this issue has taken on special importance. A 14-year-old there named Matt Epling committed suicide in 2002 after relentless anti-gay bullying. Matt’s family and friends lobbied the legislature to pass a law mandating that public schools establish policies protecting all students.

A bill did pass recently, a measure that is named for Epling – but it has a major flaw: It leaves school powerless to stop verbal bullying if such bullying is based on “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”

This provision was slipped into the bill at the last minute by Republicans in the Michigan Senate. It amounts to a huge loophole. If you want to verbally harass a gay student in Michigan, all you have to do is cite the Book of Leviticus and you’re good to go. You can also point to biblical passages to excuse your blasts against Muslims, Jews, Hindus, atheists, etc.

Blogging at the Washington Post, Brad Hirschfield was appalled. Hirschfield, a rabbi who is president of the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, said Michigan lawmakers might have actually made things worse.

“In fact, the passage of this legislation may well set back the cause of protecting kids from their tormentors by moving the focus of attention from the damage bullies do, to legal wrangling about the religious and moral basis of their bullying,” Hirschfield wrote. “Instead of addressing the damage done by bullies and legislating against it, this law incentivizes debate about bullies’ intent and how they ‘justify’ their actions against those they hate.”

Dan Savage, a syndicated sex-advice columnist who runs a campaign designed to help gay teens, also blasted the Michigan law.

“It’s a law that specifically empowers students, teachers, administrators [and] principals to bully LGBT kids if they can point to a moral justification,” Savage told ABC News.com. “You have a right to your own religious beliefs. You don’t have a right to inflict your private moral judgments on those people in a place where you are a public servant and an employee of the state…. Michigan should be ashamed of itself.”

Public outcry over the measure has led Republican legislators to begin talking about altering the law. Ari Adler, a spokesperson for Speaker of the House Jase Bolger, told the Detroit Free Press that Bolger is working on some changes that will “bring everyone to the middle of the road and provide protection to all students.”

I’m not sure what that means. I do know that the law as it exists doesn’t really address the bullying problem because it contains an easy out – “I sincerely believe my religion hates gay people, so I get to call this kid names all day!” A law this weak certainly doesn’t honor the memory of Matt Epling.

Legislators need to summon up some gumption and stand up to Religious Right groups, some of which are so blinded with homophobia that they’ve joined the pro-bullying caucus.

Consider Tom McClusky, vice president of Government Affairs for the Family Research Council. When President Barack Obama expressed support for anti-bullying initiatives earlier this year, McClusky insisted that Obama seeks to force anti-gay students “in the closet.”

As for Michigan, it’s time to return to the drawing board. This time, instead of a compromise or an attempt to bring everyone to the middle of the road, how about a simple policy instead: Zero tolerance for bullies in school. If you bully a fellow student for any reason, you will get in trouble.