With the reproductive health bill still stuck in legislation, our legislators need a lesson or two about religious freedom. But I hope they don’t follow Michigan’s example.
Michigan recently passed an anti-bullying bill, but instead of discouraging bullies, the bill seems to empower them with a familiar excuse: religion. The bill allows bullying so long as it’s done in the name of God. Anti-bullying? The bill should have been named “Religious Bullying.”
Imagine the following scene:
Harvey: Teacher, teacher! Billy is calling me names and throwing rocks at me!
Teacher: Why are you doing this, Harvey?
Billy: Because Harvey’s a homo!
Teacher: Who told you it’s OK to do this?
Billy: My dad told me that God told him it’s OK, and God hates fags!
Teacher: Oh, in that case, carry on then.
Ironically, the Religious Bullying bill is called “Matt’s Safe School Law,” after Matt Epling, a bullied student who killed himself in 2002. Understandably, Matt’s father is not happy:
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.”
Last year, in the span of around a month, at least five teens committed suicide because they were bullied for being gay. States such as Michigan are trying to respond, but I doubt that sectarian solutions such as the Religious Bullying bill will do anything to prevent incidents like this from happening. On the contrary, it gives a religious justification to actual bullies and a religious motivation to potential ones.
And Michigan students do not need a law to motivate them to bully homosexuals. They only need to follow their parents’ examples:
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 the Philippines, Catholic bullies use religious freedom to justify kicking out unwed pregnant mothers from Catholic schools. They use religious freedom to justify denying even non-Catholics the right to remarry. They use religious freedom to justify denying homosexuals the right to marry and be free from discrimination and violence. And to block the passage of the RH Bill, they use religious freedom to justify denying Filipinos their right to plan their families, protect themselves from HIV and pregnancy complications, and choose what’s best for their own bodies.
As Amy Sullivan wrote, they’re getting religious freedom wrong:
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…
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…
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.
I hope our legislators take the time to read Michigan’s Religious Bullying Bill. It serves as a perfect example of how religious freedom is done wrong.