Republicans serving in the state House of Representatives deserve praise for breaking with their GOP colleagues in the state Senate and passing an anti-bullying bill that lacks language that last week made Michigan a laughingstock on the late-night TV talk show circuit and provided fodder for national media outlets. Republican state senators with a bona fide interest in minimizing bullying in Michigan schools have been offered an invitation to redeem themselves, and we hope they make the most of it.
The GOP-controlled state House has passed its own version of anti-bullying legislation without controversial language that some argue would open the floodgates to consequence-free bullying of Michigan students based on religious and moral beliefs.
House Bill (HB) 4163 — sponsored by a slew of Democrats and Republicans, including state Rep. Hugh Crawford (R-Walled Lake, Wixom) — received support from 88 House members last week, Republicans and Democrats alike.
Crawford and state Reps. Gail Haines (R-Waterford, West Bloomfield), Eileen Kowall (R-Highland, White Lake), Lisa Brown (D-West Bloomfield, Commerce, Wolverine Lake) and Chuck Moss (R-Orchard Lake) voted in favor of HB 4163.
State Rep. Bill Rogers (R-Milford) was among the 18 House members who voted against HB 4163. He said he did so because he believes it’s redundant after speaking with two school district superintendents from his district who said “at least 80 percent-plus” of school districts already have some sort of anti-bullying policies in place.
The bill, which passed the House on Thursday, Nov. 10 after House GOP leadership indicated a tepid response to Senate Bill (SB) 137, didn’t contain the following language from that bill:
“This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or pupil’s parent or guardian.”
That’s the language that drew attention — and criticism — from around the state and nationally, from comedian Stephen Colbert to Time magazine.
And with good reason. That provision of SB 137 not only opens the door to bullying based on religious belief or moral conviction, but serves as a big neon sign that shouts to students, “Here’s a way to harrass those who don’t think like, look like, or live like you, and get away with it.” Even worse, it would allow school personnel and parents to bully other peoples’ kids without penalty.
That’s a different take than the one held by the American Family Association of Michigan, which we suspect is the firm hand on the other end of Senate Republicans’ leash when it comes to the anti-bullying debate. The association, and many Republicans, have bristled against Democrats’ preference for anti-bullying legislation with “enumeration” — provisions listing protected groups based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Their argument is that enumeration creates classes of citizens with “special” rights and protections, which they say is part and parcel of the “homosexual agenda.”
Yet, rather than eliminating any such enumeration and endorsing legislation that seeks to prohibit ALL bullying of ALL children, the Senate GOP came up with the “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” exemption for bullies — as if that, itself, didn’t create a class of citizens with a very special right or protection.
We understand why Republicans often heed the whims of their Religious Right masters — because it’s an effective means of self preservation. The Religious Right ponies up big money and puts lots of feet on the street in support of those who pledge to do their bidding. Folks like the American Family Association members don’t stay away from the polls when it’s rainy, snowy, cold, dark or otherwise inconvenient to vote. They donate money, volunteer to knock on doors and stuff envelopes, get to the polls, and make sure their family and friends do the same.
Maybe more importantly, the Religious Right will use that money and those foot soldiers to destroy any Republican that doesn’t faithfully walk and talk their party line. That’s how we end up debating an anti-bullying bill that allows some people to bully.
What’s sad, and infuriating, is that all Republican senators really had to do to scuttle any kind of anti-bullying legislation with “enumeration” is … nothing. With majorities in both the House and Senate, Republicans also have a majority on and chair all legislative committees. They can tube any bill they don’t like by never taking it up for debate or a vote in committee, and just letting it sit and expire at the end of the legislative session. It’s not difficult. Yet, they went out of their way to introduce substitute legislation that would authorize the kind of bullying that’s the American Family Association’s specialty.
We’re thankful that — for whatever reason — the House GOP didn’t follow the Senate’s lead. They supported a bill lacking both enumeration and exemptions for bigots. Senators now have another chance to indicate whether they’re more interested in helping prevent all bullying of all children, or serving their deep-pocketed, unyielding masters.