A bill passed this week in the Michigan Senate will allow bullies to torment students as long as their comments are born from “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
The bill passed the Republican-led Senate along party lines. Democrats claim the bill doesn’t go far enough to protect kids from bullies.
"Not only does this not protect kids who are bullied, it further endangers them by legitimizing excuses for tormenting a student,” said state senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer.
The bill was named in honor of Matt Epling, a 14-year-old Michigan student who committed suicide because of constant bullying. Whitmer said the bill didn’t commemorate Epling, calling it a “[sick] irony.”
Understanding the difference between freedom of expression and infringing on the welfare of others appears to be the point of contention. Critics say it’s a line that will be hard to define.
“Would it be OK if someone harassed or even beat up your child, or any child, because the bully is morally opposed to eating meat? Being fat?” wrote Rob Zimmer, Portage, Mich. resident, to mlive.com. “I mean, because the Bible says that your body is a temple so it's OK for a ‘Christian’ bully to beat you up for being out of shape, right?”
The vague terms of the bill have not inspired confidence in school officials.
“I cannot imagine any real moral conviction or religious teaching that says it is acceptable to inflict pain, humiliation, and suffering on another person, especially a child,” State Superintendent Mike Flanagan said in a statement.
“After my long relationship with families of children who have committed suicide after being bullied, I find this bill now to be a joke, especially as it is named in memory of one of those children,” Flanagan said.
Republicans say the bill is a necessary step to stop bullying in schools. Indeed Michigan is one of several remaining states that haven’t enacted anti-bullying legislation.
But Democrats have some suggestions.
In addition to removing the clause, critics want to enumerate the common reasons why students are bullied. Groups, like social rights organization Equality Michigan, are also calling for tighter reporting of bullying events.
Those against the bill say it fails to protect the unprotected, and thus the morality and wisdom of the bill is questionable at best. They say we should protect the freedom of religious and moral expression but not at the peril of others.
The bill will now go to the Michigan House of Representatives, which is also Republican-led. Advocacy groups hope to reform the bill before