In 2002, upon completing eighth grade at MacDonald Middle School in East Lansing, MI, Matt Epling was the victim of a hazing assault by upperclassmen. Roughly forty days later, presumably still reeling from the aftermath of the incident, Matt committed suicide. In the years since, friends and family have honored his memory by fighting for the passage of Matt’s Safe School Law.
The latest iteration of this legislation passed the Michigan Senate on November 2. But instead of protecting students like Matt from bullying and harassment, SB 137 creates a potentially dangerous religious exemption.
This section does not prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.
The First Amendment and the fundamental constitutional rights and principles it encompasses deserve our utmost respect and a passionate defense. But to exempt religion in this way is not the answer.
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.”
Or as Dr. Eliza Byard, Executive Director of the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, once said:
This is an issue of behavior, not belief.
Fix SB 137 by removing the exemption clause, adding statewide reporting requirements, and adding enumerated protections for categories such as race, disability, and sexual orientation.