- (Photo: AP Photo / The Columbia Daily Tribune, Joshua A. Bickel)
The Michigan Senate passed a bill Wednesday that requires schools to develop anti-bullying policies and programs. However, the state Democrats are fired up about the bill’s “religious exception” clause, saying that bullies now have an excuse to get away with tormenting their fellow classmates.
State bill 137, commonly referred to as “Matt’s Law” in honor of Matt Epling, a Michigan student who committed suicide in 2002 after prolonged bullying, passed the Senate with a 26-11 vote along party lines. The bill bans harassment in schools and requires school districts to have an anti-bullying policy.
However, under the paragraph requiring an efficient bullying complaint method in the schools, the bill included this phrase: “This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil and parent or guardian.”
Minority Leader in the Senate Gretchen Whitmer (D- East Lansing) took to the floor denouncing her Republican colleagues over the religious phrase.
“Here today you claim to be protecting kids and you’re actually putting them in more danger,” Whitmer said, according to The Michigan Messenger. “But bullying is not OK. We should be protecting public policy that protects kids – all kids, from bullies – all bullies. But instead you have set us back further by creating a blueprint for bullying.”
Other Democratic senators have assailed the bill, along with Matt Epling’s father, Kevin. He was quoted in the Detroit Free Press as saying that the bill is “just unconscionable. This is government-sanctioned bigotry.” Epling is asking for an apology from all the senators who voted yes to the bill.
However, Sen. Rick Jones (R-Grand Ledge), sponsor of the bill, told The Christian Post that the intent of the bill is to force each school district to write an anti-bullying policy within 6 months.
“My goal is to protect all kids from being bullied. I want to do everything I can. Legislation may not stop bullying but we need to try,” said Jones.
Jones explained that there was a concern within his caucus that a student who makes a religious statement in class, such as saying that he or she believes homosexuality is biblically wrong, could be punished as a bully. The members of Jones’ caucus sought to protect the students’ First Amendment rights while also protecting students from being bullied.
“There is nothing in this bill in my mind that would allow a student to confront another student and bully. We simply sought to ensure that the First Amendment rights were protected.”
“That’s been my goal. I was very surprised at the Democrat’s reaction to something that was meant to improve conditions for students,” he said. “The Democrats have been an impediment. They keep demanding enumerations. They want the bill to detail each kind of person that cannot be bullied.”
“They are focusing mainly on LGBT students. My bill protects every student. There are just too many reasons a child can be bullied and I don’t wish to outline just a few. I want to protect everyone.”
The issue of bullying hits close to home for Jones. The daughter of his mentor when he was a youth committed suicide after being bullied. Chrystal Eaton was “a little different than other kids,” Jones said. One day she got tired of being bullied and reached for her grandfather’s shotgun.
“Chrystal is one of the reasons why I feel strongly about passing an anti-bullying law in Michigan.”
Jones made it clear to The Christian Post that if the bill were to outline every reason and every type of student that legally “couldn’t be bullied” there would inevitably be victims of bullies who wouldn’t be protected under the law because their circumstance wasn’t covered.
David Cortman, senior counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, agrees with Jones. Cortman told The Christian Post that:
“There is no need to give preference to certain categories, such as sexual orientation, when all bullying should be banned. Students in such politically correct categories should not be singled out for special recognition or protection, as it necessarily leaves out equal protection for all other students who may be experiencing bullying.”
Jones is the father of a mentally handicapped man now in his thirties.
“My son grew up in special ed. He didn’t communicate well with others. He is different. As a parent, I know what it is like to have a child bullied for being different. I feel strongly that we should work together to fix this problem,” said the Michigan senator.
The bill will now be sent to the GOP-led House, where it is bound to be revised before and if it becomes law.
“Lawmaking is like making sausage. It isn’t pretty. There will be more revisions to this bill. Hopefully we can arrive at something that we can all agree on,” said Jones.