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Critics say that new Michigan anti-bullying bill actually condones bullying

Chris Lehmann
The Lookout

There's nothing like a good culture war conflict to produce unintended consequences--as when, for example, so-called zero tolerance school policies fail to improve safety and sometimes correlate with spikes in the very behavior education officials want to curb.

But a new bill wending its way through the Michigan legislature may represent a new landmark in culture-war legislating: It has acquired a last-minute amendment that deliberately seeks to undermine the legislation's stated purpose.

The measure is supposed to enact new restraints on bullying in Michigan schools; it's known as Matt's Safe School Law, named for Matt Epling, a 14-year-old Michigan student who committed suicide after sustained bullying from fellow students. But before the state Senate approved the bill, Republicans in the chamber added an amendment stipulating that it does not abridge First Amendment free speech rights or impinge on the expression of religious or moral views.

Partisans in the religious-secular wings of culture combat can, of course, weigh in on the question of whether religious and moral traditions condone bullying--but that's not the point of this particular legislative maneuver. As Amy Sullivan, a Time magazine columnist on the religion-and-politics beat, explains:

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 new provision reflects a longstanding belief among social conservatives that legal efforts to curb hate speech and bullying actually target the body of beliefs in various faith traditions that castigate homosexual behavior. In similar disputes over federal legislation, Sullivan notes, social conservative lawmakers and interest groups "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."

Michigan's amended bill drew sharp rebukes from anti-bullying activists and Democrats in the state senate. Matt Epling's father, Kevin Epling wrote a letter of protest that state Sen. Glenn Anderson read on the chamber floor during the debate over the measure on Wednesday. "I am ashamed that this could be Michigan's law on anti-bullying when in fact it is a 'bullying is OK in Michigan' law." Senate Democratic leader Gretchen Whitmer echoed the same point in an emotional floor speech, which you can watch in the video clip above.

"Here today, you claim to be protecting kids, and you're actually putting them in more danger," Whitmer said. "You may be able to pat yourself on the back today and say that you did something, but in actuality, you're explicitly outlining how to get away with bullying."

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