Why Does Michigan’s Anti-Bullying Bill Protect Religious Tormenters?

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As a transplanted Michigander, I’ve always maintained pride in my home state. I’ve only owned American cars. I believed in the Lions even during the really dismal years. I still point to my hand to show people which part of the state I’m from.

But the Michigan legislature is doing its best to make me hang my head in shame. On Wednesday, the Republican-controlled state senate passed an anti-bullying bill that manages to protect school bullies instead of those they victimize. It accomplishes this impressive feat by allowing students, teachers, and other school employees to claim that “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” justifies their harassment.

(MORE: What You Need to Know About Bullying)

Michigan is already one of only three states in the country that have not enacted any form of anti-bullying legislation. For more than a decade, Democrats in the state legislature have fought their Republican colleagues and social conservatives such as Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, who referred to anti-bullying measures as “a Trojan horse for the homosexual agenda.” In that time, at least ten Michigan students who were victims of bullying have killed themselves.

This year, Republicans only agreed to consider an anti-bullying measure that did not require school districts to report bullying incidents, did not include any provisions for enforcement or teacher training, and did not hold administrators accountable if they fail to act. And they fought back Democratic attempts to enumerate particular types of students who are prone to being bullied, such as religious and racial minorities, and gay students. But it was the addition of special protections for religiously-motivated bullying that led all 11 Democratic senators to vote against the legislation they had long championed.

In an emotional speech on the Senate floor, Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer accused her colleagues of creating a blueprint for consequence-free bullying. “As passed today,” said Whitmer, “bullying kids is okay if a student, parent, teacher or school employee can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it.”

The bill is called “Matt’s Safe School Law,” after Matt Epling, a Michigan student who committed suicide in 2002 after enduring prolonged bullying. Matt’s father, Kevin Epling, expressed his dismay in a Facebook post after the state senate vote on Wednesday. “I am ashamed that this could be Michigan’s bill on anti-bullying,” wrote Epling. “For years the line [from Republicans] has been ‘no protected classes,’ and the first thing they throw in…was a very protected class, and limited them from repercussions of their own actions.”

(MORE: Why It’s So Hard to Tell If Your Kids Are Being Bullied)

To understand what happened in Michigan, it’s important to know that social conservatives consider themselves the real victims. At the federal level, they unsuccessfully fought for the inclusion of a provision protecting religious freedom when Congress expanded the definition of a hate crime to include crimes motivated by a victim’s sexual orientation. They also strongly oppose legislation that would prevent discrimination against gay individuals in the workplace, charging that such a law would endanger religious freedom. A report on the Christian Broadcasting Network outlined one such concern: “The special protections for gay and transgendered teachers will make it extremely difficult for [public school] districts that might want to remove them from the classroom.”

In other words, social conservatives believe that efforts to protect gays from assault, discrimination or bullying impinge on their religious freedom to express and act on their belief that homosexuality is an abomination. That’s stating it harshly, but it is the underlying belief.

This belief, however, relies on a warped understanding of religious liberty. Freedom of religious expression doesn’t give someone the right to kick the crap out of a gay kid or to verbally torment her. It doesn’t give someone the right to fire a gay employee instead of dealing with the potential discomfort of working with him.

It’s also a highly selective conception of religious liberty. The same religious conservatives who applaud the religious exemption in Michigan’s anti-bullying bill would be appalled if it protected a Muslim student in Dearborn who defended bullying a Christian classmate by saying he considered her an infidel.

Worst of all, such abuses of the concept of religious liberty undermine efforts to focus attention on serious threats to religious freedom. A Christian pastor in Iran currently faces execution because he will not convert back to Islam. China openly represses religious minorities like Tibetan Buddhists and Uighur Muslims. Christians in Syria and Egypt continue to be targets of violence, and Muslims in Europe face civil penalties for wearing religious garb in public. Next to these realities, it takes a serious persecution complex to get worked up about defending the right of a Michigan high school student to target a gay classmate for ridicule.

The anti-bullying legislation now moves to the Michigan house of representatives, where both religious and secular Michiganders are lobbying to have the religious exemption stripped and reporting requirements inserted. Given the body’s Republican majority, I’m not holding my breath. But stranger things have happened. After all, the Lions are 6-2 so far this season.

Amy Sullivan is a contributing writer at TIME, and author of the book The Party Faithful: How and Why Democrats are Closing the God Gap (Scribner, 2008). Articles of Faith, her column on the intersection of religion and politics, appears on TIME.com every Friday.

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