The New Jersey state Legislature voted overwhelmingly to pass the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights despite concerns from religious leaders and pro-family groups.
On Monday, the state General and Senate approved amendments to existing anti-bullying legislation, making it among the toughest in the nation.
Among other things, the legislation will now require teachers, administrators and school staff to receive bullying training in addition to the suicide training already mandated. Administrators will also be required to collect data of the number incidents and actions taken against bullying to be reported quarterly. The data will then be calculated to give each school a bully grade.
The bill's passage is a huge success for Garden State Equality. The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender advocate group lobbied for the bill's passage last week during last week's senate hearing.
"We are very grateful for the harmony that exists in Trenton to help our kids," said Goldstein, congratulating the bipartisan effort behind the bill.
The anti-bullying bill was sponsored by 28 members of the state senate and 46 members of the assembly. Supporters were both Republicans and Democrats.
However, the New Jersey Legislature's passage of the Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights struck discord among conservative pro-family groups and religious leaders who disagreed with several points of the bill.
A group of Christian pastors and rabbis led by Greg Quinlan of the faith-based family advocacy group New Jersey Family Policy Council gathered at the state house on the morning of the vote. They urged state policy members not to approve the bill. During the meeting, religious leaders expressed concern over the proposed Week of Respect, which they say will be used to teach school children about sexual orientation and gender identity and expression.
"It's more dangerous than the gay marriage bill because it forces us to [comply with it]," coalition member Isaac Caller warned.
Religious conservatives now worry that once the law is enacted, youths as young as kindergarteners will be taught about homosexuality from books such as Heather Has Two Mommies and And Tango Makes Three, one of the American Library Association's most frequently challenged books of 2006 through 2009.
"They wrote age-appropriate, but we know from other states [that] it starts in kindergarten," said Caller.
Conservatives had other concerns in addition to the Week of Respect.
Quinlan laments the bill is potentially harmful for teachers' right to free speech.
He testified during last week's hearing that the language in the bill gives education institutions the right to disqualify teachers for employment because of "bias intimidation." Quinlan believes the language may keep Christian educators from entering the public school system.
He also fears the bill will be applied retroactively, challenging the positions of existing Christian teachers. According to Quinlan, teachers who say there is no gay gene may find themselves facing disciplinary action.
But not all Christians hold the same fears. Warren Throckmorton, an associate professor of psychology at Grove City College in Pennsylvania, said in a commentary, "I have little sympathy for Quinlan's concerns over the first amendment right to say 'there is no gay gene.' Nothing in this bill removes first amendment rights to say a true thing."
Still, Quinlan has drafted his own model of anti-bully legislation, which eliminates any list and defers to a catch-all statement of bullied characteristics.
The current legislation reads in part: "'Harassment, intimidation or bullying' means any gesture, any written, verbal or physical act, or any electronic communication that is reasonably perceived as being motivated either by any actual or perceived characteristic, such as race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, gender identity and expression, or a mental, physical or sensory [handicap] disability, or by any other distinguishing characteristic, that takes place on school property, at any school-sponsored function or on a school bus."
The interfaith coalition has also offered a replacement campaign to the Week of Respect, called the "Morality Awareness Campaign" to teach children successful protection methods against cyber bullying.
The week would emphasize parent supervision of students' Web activities, internet filters and limited access to social networking sites, Caller said.
Despite the coalition's efforts, the bill passed through the legislature virtually unchanged. But the coalition had one small victory, according to Caller.
"We did fight a little and they did exempt [private and] religious schools," he said.
Still, the group does not plan to stop there. "Our plans are to work on the governor's office. We're telling him he shouldn't be afraid to veto it," stated Caller.