For a state shaped like a mitten, not everything about Michigan is as warm and cozy as you might like to think, at least not for gay people. For instance, you can legally be fired for being gay! Even if you have a job, there’s no guarantee that the state will provide benefits for your partner accordingly. And most recently, not only does it not have anti-bullying legislation, Michigan’s state government has actually figured out how to have the opposite of that.
SB 137 is ostensibly anti-bullying legislation, but it’s unclear what parts of it would actually prevent anyone, especially gay kids, from being bullied. It doesn’t contain any of the specific measures that other anti-bullying bills have contained and that have been proven to actually protect kids. As the Michigan Messenger reports:
The GOP pushed through an amended bill, SB 137, which does nothing advocates have pushed for — including reporting requirements and enumeration, or listing, of protected classes. In addition, the legislation provides an exception which allows bullying based on “moral convictions.”
To repeat: ALLOWS BULLYING BASED ON MORAL CONVICTIONS. Specifically, the language of the bill actually says:
“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.”
So, in legal terms, the only justification one needs for saying ANYTHING AT ALL to a student is having a “sincerely held religious belief.” Such as, just hypothetically, that gay people are inherently sinful and going to hell, or not worthy of equal rights as godly straight people. Or even moral conviction! You could be a completely secular person who thinks gay kids deserve to be tormented, and your bases would still be covered here. Also, the “you” in this sentence can be anyone! School employee! Fellow student! Parent! Is there anyone who can’t just show up and inform gay students of their unworthiness based on moral or religious grounds? Maybe not! Who knows!
Maybe the worst and most confusing part of SB 137 is that its name in the state Senate is “Matt’s Safe School Law.” It’s named for Matt Epling, a Michigan high school student whose suicide was connected to anti-gay bullying. Astute analysts of the bill will note that, as Michigan Senator Gretchen Whitmer said, “it wouldn’t have done a damn thing to save Matt!”
Gary Glenn of the American Family Association of Michigan feels differently, as one might imagine.
The religious free speech protections included in the bill, consistent with the First Amendment, simply ensure that students won’t be bullied or punished — as occurred last year at a high school in Howell — for daring to say they believe a certain behavior is wrong as a matter of sincerely held religious or moral conviction. The First Amendment and other free speech protections do just that, protect free speech, not bullying. And students, like all other Americans, are free to verbally express their opinions — including religious and moral views — without fear of government repression or persecution, including under anti-bullying or harassment laws.
The issue is that while Glenn isn’t incorrect about the fact that the First Amendment allows us freedom of speech, constitutional rights have always been different in public schools. That’s why schools can enforce a three-inch-wide tank top strap rule, or search students’ lockers for drugs. Like it or not, students aren’t guaranteed the same constitutional rights on school property, and neither are their teachers — public school teachers have gotten in serious trouble for personal opinions (perhaps based on “moral convictions,” even) that weren’t even about or addressed to their own students, and were on their own time. Americans are guaranteed free speech, but school employees are charged with the safety and care of their students above all else, and it’s a shocking reversal of mission to change that for the sake of, of all things, religious principles — after all, the Constitution also guarantees us separation of church and state.
Aside from the implications this bill makes about how it is acceptable to treat other human beings and why, the facts are that as an anti-bullying law, this is a backwards way to go about things. To the extent that we have research on bullying and its causes and effects, nothing about this bill works. As Emily Dievendorf of Equality Michigan says:
“Research clearly shows that only states with enumerated bills see a reduction in bullying. We need a bill that mentions the most affected populations and requires statewide reporting of bullying and harassment. SB 137 simply does nothing to reduce bullying in our schools.”
SB 137 has been approved by the State Senate; it now moves on to the Republican-controlled House. This wouldn’t be the first anti-bullying legislation that’s less than effective; Michigan is far from the only state that has a long way to go as far as figuring out how to deal with bullying and kids’ safety. But this might be the first anti-bullying legislation that does not actually intend to stop bullying. When “moral convictions” take precedence over safety, the question has to be asked — who is Michigan’s state government actually trying to help?