Michigan Introduces Anti-Anti-Bullying Bill Named After Gay Teen Suicide Victim

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?

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Originally from Boston, MA, Rachel now lives in the Midwest. Topics dear to her heart include bisexuality, The X-Files and tacos. Her favorite Ciara video is probably "Ride," but if you're only going to watch one, she recommends "Like A Boy." You can follow her on twitter and instagram.

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  1. that’s easy, the government is trying to please the rich conservative religious fundamentalists that live in West Michigan and control the politics of the state.

    This makes me sick. And it really makes me want to move.

  2. So, in essence, by naming it “Matt’s Safe School Law” the message being sent is “If you are an LGBT youth struggling with being bullied..We won’t help you so do the world a favor and do what Matt did.” Please excuse me.. I’m going to go pull the covers over my head and cry for a little bit

    • Maybe it’s time to stop lining this states pockets with OUR money..Perhaps the Michigan Womyn’s Festival needs to not be in Michigan..

  3. I’ve always been someone who advocated greater free speech in public schools, but that rider is so useless. This bill specifically addresses BULLYING; it was never going to be used to, say, keep a conservative Christian student from writing a paper about how s/he doesn’t agree with gay marriage. But yeah, now that that’s in there, it’s basically going to be used to ignore any bullying that comes from a religious or “moral” point of view. As Sen. Whitmer says in the video, it gives them a blueprint for how they can get away with bullying! Even students who aren’t coming from any “sincerely held moral or religious beliefs” (sorry, but I don’t think homophobia can ever be a “moral” belief) can just make up something about it when they’re getting punished for bullying and all will be forgiven!

    Sometimes I’m really embarrassed to be a Michigander, and really glad I’m not living in my home state anymore.

  4. Arg. What if a kid said it was in his moral conviction that one race is superior over another and felt that he had a right to tell everyone at school. Obviously school ls are special places where free speech is different.

  5. Reluctantly, sadly, I stand with Senator W. on this one. The bill is worse than no law, no public policy, since in the ensuing vacuum left by no law at least some school staff, teachers, other students would take the ethical high road and stand against bullying. With this bill in place, however, it seems clear that religious negative speech about LGBT students, parents (two moms, two dads, single parent)is not just protected it is privileged over and against the safety of any LGBT students or adults who may be targeted in particular school situations. We may also note in passing that this leaves the state’s schools, more or less comparable to the state’s workplaces, so far as an utter lack of concern or legal equality goes. To that extent, then, and very sadly, the schools where religious negative speech and acts are free to demean and abuse LGBT students is a foretaste of the workplace to come, where those same students can quickly be dismissed for telling the truth about themselves as LGBT employees. One assumes all of this is intentional, as by now we know that the bulk of the traditional religious negative ideas about LGBT folks are flat earth beliefs, not only disconfirmed by empirical studies of LGBT people and their citizenship, but also contrary to the so-called Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as you love yourself. Alas. Lord have mercy.

  6. Freedom of speech, you’re doing it wrong. There’s a reason as to why you can’t teach creationism in public schools. It is also why you can’t allow bullying or school prayer. People are fucking stupid.

    • Actually, they do allow school prayer when it’s a case of individual students or some non-school-sponsored extracurricular activity (like a Christian student club). It’s only not allowed when it’s a school-sponsored event and/or when staff members are taking part in it.

      The people who placed the rider on that bill probably thought that it was consistent with the rules that allow individual student prayer. But it’s not. When a religious student expresses his/her beliefs by praying before a test, it doesn’t (at least, it shouldn’t) impact anybody else. When a religious student expresses his/her beliefs by harassing a gay kid, it definitely hurts other people.

  7. Doesn’t anyone else see that they’re not protecting kids, but protecting RELIGION with this bill? And FFS, we already have the First Amendment, DO WE REALLY NEED MORE OF THIS?

    Can’t push the gay agenda on anyone, can push religious agenda though AND IT IS PROTECTED.

    Excuse me, I have to go throw things and vomit.

  8. it’s not enough that they get to bully this bill through by majority, but to add insult to injury they are parading Matt’s name on it. Right now I am in a coffee shop, but i can promise you I am crying from frustration and despair for this final act of bullying to a tortured soul. They can’t even let him rest in death without giving him one last good kick.

  9. As Matt’s dad let me address a few things, Matt was not gay nor would it have made a difference to us if he were. Matt’s assault was also not gay-related as noted. I in no way want to place any additional assumptions on the young men who assaulted Matt.

    It is also important to note hat the first versions of “Matt’s Law” were almost 7 pgs. long and there has been much stripped out. We are at a phase where more information and guidance can be placed back into it. I am trying the best I can as a parent to help make a concerted effort to get schools to recognize this issue. In the end the politicians make the laws and I can only be vocal about it.

    I also disagree that no law is better than no law. Having nothing gives every school a pass on this issue. Having a law gives rights to parents to ask schools what they are doing based on the requirement of having a policy, what that policy actually is, obtaining said policy and acting on it. Michigan schools were asked in 2001 to develop policies and here we are 10 years later and we have lost basically a child a year (that we know of)
    Had we had a law earlier it possibly could have done more for those students well being by addressing the issue and educating people about the issue than standing by and doing nothing.

    It may not be pretty, it may not be perfect, but it is a start.

    • I understand that given the actual circumstances of Matt’s death, anti-gay bullying was not the question you and the other lobbyists for this bill were seeking to address. But this bill was passed in the context of a horrible swath of queer youth suicides, one might hope that a more general anti-bullying bill would address ALL forms of bullying, not just those which are not grounded in a sincerely held, religious or moral belief. May I ask when the caveat about religious or moral beliefs entered the Bill? Was it a part of the initial proposal or was it added later?

      Reading this caveat I believe it could be used to justify not only homophobic bullying, but also religious intolerance, and gender based bullying when people step outside gender norms (girls playing football, or boys who do not may be fair game for instance). You might extend it to cover racial prejudice as well, depending on the interpretation of “moral.”

      To me, the question of whether no law is better than a bad law needs to consider that sometimes it is harder to get a bad law repealed than to pass a new one. Also, the best time for having a conversation about gay bullying issues is when we are already talking about bullying in general. Further, in the absence of law, school communities would be free to respond to pressure from parent and community groups to institute anti-bullying policies.

  10. Sorry this should have read “I also disagree that no law is better than a weaker law”
    Having nothing in place only empowers the bullies, at all levels.

  11. First this ludicrous bill about a “strong moral or religious justification for bullying.” And now the HB 4770 bill, which “prohibits the government from providing domestic partner benefits to LGBT employees.” For us LGBT Michiganders, it’s not looking good these days.

  12. Hm. This could make for some… interesting… constitutional conflicts. Say, for example, that a student in a Michigan high school bullied a gay student and was suspended/expelled by the school for doing so. The parents of the expelled student could obviously use this law to challenge the discipline, yet, the school would be able to argue that they have the ability to proscribe student speech when it interferes with the educational mission of the school (i.e. when it is disruptive), which is consistent with the Tinker test, the most commonly used SCOTUS precedent on the issue of free speech in schools.

    The parents of the suspended student could obviously also make their own challenge under the first amendment, though that would likely fail due to the exceptions to protection of speech based on true threats, fighting words, and defamation, etc.

    I think this bill, should it be passed, will have little effect on the state of affairs in Michigan. Responsible school administrators who care about the safety and well-being of their student bodies will punish bullying. Those who don’t (or who let their personal viewpoints influence their behavior) won’t. All this would seem to do would be to give marginal legal cover to the feckless or hateful administrators who don’t want to do anything about bullying. Sigh.

  13. When recent studies show that approximately 90% of LGBT kids are the recipient of some type of bullying, it’s time that we focus on education and awareness and promote respect and tolerance. The “moral convictions” exception to this bill allows intolerant beliefs to take precedence over protecting all students from becoming the victims of bullying.

  14. It’s rather pointless to have a law saying no bullying, unless you claim a moral conviction cause that totally makes it acceptable and okay.

  15. the republican mantra as usual – If you tell a lie often enough and outrageous enough, it will be seen as the truth.

    From a catholic who got hitler elected. Goebbels.

    How many are aware that the catholic church has yet to excommunicate their boy hitler.

    But they did sign in 1933 a concordant between PiusXII and hitler. Legitimizing hitler in the eyes of the German catholics (about 40% of the population)

    A result of that deal is found at http://nobeliefs.com/nazis.htm

    (Only use lower case)

    As for the evangelicals, they are the southern baptist types who gave us slavery, the kkk, and segregation

    And that church came from the old dutch church – of Apatheid fame.

  16. I often struggle with being a ‘nice’ gay versus being an ‘angry’ gay, and things like this always bring me back to angry. With all of the progress we have made as a group, we are still incredibly far from equality. I came across this pamphlet that was distributed at a 1990 pride, and it’s pretty angry (http://www.qrd.org/qrd/misc/text/queers.read.this). I know there are amazing straight people who understand and support us, but it is so frustrating to never see real gay life reflected back at me, and see friends of mine who are in the closet because they can’t handle being out. It’s hard not to think it as an ‘us vs. them’ situation. Frustrated sigh…I think I need a kitten.

    • I def struggle with this too. like I don’t want to be the stereotypical angry dyke. a lot of minority groups deal with this I think. but you know what? there are serious things to be angry about. as long as kids are dying, and people feel like they have to hide who the really are, I’m not going to chill out and shut up just so people in the majority can be comfortable and pretend everything’s wonderful.

      • I don’t struggle with this at all. I am an effing angry dyke. Why? Because I live in Michigan.

    • We need ‘angry gays’ as much as ‘nice gays’. Angry gays help catalyze the movement, nice gays actually get bills passed.

      My theory is that most queer people know they don’t receive equal legal or social treatment as straight people, and on some level, we’re all at least a little pissed about that. The angry, screaming queers of the world remind otherwise polite, content people that yes, they’re mad about the injustices they have to deal with and want to do something about it.

  17. What complete and utter bullshit.

    Also, as a Pagan, I always wonder WHOSE morals these laws are supposed to “protect.” Because in practice these sorts of things usually only privilege Christians (and sometimes the other Abrahamic faiths as well), but if Pagans and other non-mainstream faiths try to take advantage of them, the authorities freak the fuck out. I wonder if Pagans and other ally faiths started giving homophobes mounds of shit because homophobia offends their morals, if we could get this law repealed.

  18. Just an update that the revised version of “Matt’s Law” passed the MI house without the offensive language. The bill is up on the legislative site now.
    Is it everything everyone wanted no but it is better than allowing schools to simply look the other way. We still have to go through the Senate and of course they have decided to take a break for hunting.

    And as Matt’s father Kevin, please correct your original post as Matt was not gay nor was his assault due to “anti-gay bullying”
    I have noted on several web sites that this mis-information is getting picked up and has now become “fact” when no media agency has bothered to double check with his family. After being disrespected by our own Senate whom I have worked with for years for the safety of children across Michigan, I do not feel that Matt or our family should be subject to lack of fact checking by any agency. Just because it is on the web does not make it fact. Please post a correction as the owner of this site, thank you.

  19. PLease indicate where in the Constitution there is a guaranteed separation of church and state. The constitution protects religion FROM the state more than the state from religion. THe so-called separation ONLY indicates that the state cannot create a religion and force the public to adhere.

    Thomas Jefferson SEPARATELY coined the phrase, and again, in context of preventing government from interfering in religion

  20. :'(
    so basically this bill can’t protect ME or anyone in GSA clubs or groups or anything really even when its something not related to LGBTs? What about people with different religeons? Could it help them at all because it sounds like if they just are different than they can do what they want to people who arent’ the same as everyone else.

    Oh, and its snowing X(

  21. D: I’m glad I left MI I mean my life SUCKED back then Because of Bully’s. I didn’t have freinds back then because I was consiered gay but I wasn’t I mean I have a BF and he likes me for me I live down south now for the last 3 years or so and I love it here. well it’s better then being in MI thats for sure. :3

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