Earlier this month, Michigan passed “Matt’s Safe School Law,” which aims to create anti-bullying guidelines within every school district in the state. Unfortunately, Republican lawmakers managed to significantly minimize any effectiveness the legislation might have with their insertion of a religious exemption clause. In the words of Michigan Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer, as passed, the legislation states that “bullying students is ok if [the perpetrator] can come up with a moral or religious reason for doing it.” Essentially, the law “legitimizes excuses for tormenting a student.”
Democratic lawmakers are not the only ones unhappy with the religious exemption clause. Kevin Epling, father of Matt Epling, for whom the bill is named, expressed his disappointment with the added clause, as well, stating: “I am ashamed that this could be Michigan’s bill on anti-bullying,” because it essentially permits bullying. The Michigan Catholic Conference also expressed dismay at the religious exemption clause. Although the Conference originally supported the bill, they withdrew their support when the religious exemption clause was added. The withdrawal of support from a major statewide Roman Catholic organization sends a strong message: bullying in the name of religion is an affront to human dignity. Although the Roman Catholic hierarchy has made clear its position on LGBT people, it is encouraging to see them stand up for those who face bullying because of who they are.
In a piece published in the National Catholic Reporter, Michael Sean Winters argues that using religious liberty as a cover for bullying and harassment serves no worthwhile purpose. When religious freedom is cited as a defense for bullying, it degrades religion by implying that it condones bullying. As Winters argues, “[n]othing, repeat nothing, will be gained for the cause of religious liberty by distorting it into a cover for bullies.” This distortion then becomes the norm, and thoughtful, conscientious religious people are left by the wayside. Religious traditions that are welcoming and accepting of LGBT people can seem to be in the minority when religious exemptions to anti-bullying legislation are emphasized. But many traditions are inclusive, and these exemptions do not speak for them.
GLAAD commends the Michigan Catholic Conference for standing in support of bullied youth, no matter what their gender identity or sexual orientation. We continue to hope for the day that the Roman Catholic Church will work for protections for all LGBT people as well.