By Joseph L. Conn
Good news from Michigan! The state legislature is moving toward anti-bullying legislation that does not include an exemption for religiously motivated harassment.
As we reported to you earlier, the state Senate passed a measure to deal with bullying in public schools. But, remarkably, senators included an exemption for those who act out of “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
The action sparked outrage in Michigan and across the country. Most saw it for what it was: a deplorable attempt to allow bullying of LGBT kids and other minorities as long as the perpetrator was quoting Leviticus.
The House bill drew condemnation from leaders in the civil rights, civil liberties and progressive religious communities.
For example, Paul Brandeis Raushenbush, senior religion editor for the Huffington Post, wrote, “As we have become painfully aware in the last year, there is an epidemic of bullying across the country that has made laws like the one Michigan is working on so important. Too often, the victim is perceived as LGBT identified – whether they are in reality or not….The idea that religious beliefs require special provision within a law meant to protect the most vulnerable should be an affront to all religious people. It is an affront to me as a Baptist minister. The bill intimates that we people of faith require special loopholes for our irresistible urges to bully people based on our very, very sincerely held beliefs. Ridiculous.”
Raushenbush concluded, “Any anti-bullying legislation must be the same for all people. Get rid of the loophole for religious beliefs. It is insulting and wrong.”
Even TV comedian Stephen Colbert weighed in, commenting tongue-in-(right-wing)-cheek, “Bullying is just fine, as long as you get a permission slip from God."
Fortunately, wiser heads prevailed in the Michigan House, and the anti-bullying bill passed there did not include the religion exemption.
After the national uproar, things are even looking up in the state Senate. According to theReligion News Service, State Sen. Rick Jones (R – Grand Ledge) – who sponsored the exemption – on Monday agreed to the House approach.
Jones said he intended his exemption as a protection of free speech, not an excuse for bullying. And he said he will urge his fellow Republican senators to vote for the cleaned-up proposal.
The likely outcome in Michigan shows that the forces of civility, equality and fairness can win. We just have to speak out forcefully, and let our elected representatives know where we stand.