LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan state Senate on Wednesday passed the “Matt’s Safe School Law,” an anti-bullying bill that contained a last minute addition by senate Republicans that essentially nullified the bill by allowing an exception to the law for “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.”
The bill was approved by a 26-11, party-line vote and now advances to the Republican-led House.
Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer (D-East Lansing), took to the floor angrily denouncing the legislation, and told the GOP majority that instead of trying to protect kids, “you’re putting them in more danger.”
Whitmer, outraged, told her senatorial colleagues, “You have explicitly outlined how to get away with bullying!”
Whitmer was referring to the change in the measure’s language which includes a section noting it doesn’t abridge First Amendment free speech rights or prohibit expression of religious or moral viewpoints — a provision the minority leader said could be used to justify harassment of LGBTQ students.
The bill — named for Matt Eppling (above), an East Lansing 14-year-old who committed suicide after being bullied by classmates in 2002 — requires school districts to develop anti-bullying policies, but the last minute addition included a clause that schools’ policies can’t “prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
State Superintendent Mike Flanagan blasted the bill, calling it “a joke” that language in the measure appears to allow bullying on religious and moral grounds.
“There should never be an excuse or reason or justification for anyone to bully, intimidate, or harass a student. I cannot imagine any real moral conviction or religious teaching that says it acceptable to inflict pain, humiliation, and suffering on another person, especially a child,” Flanagan said.
Bob McCann, Communications Director for Sen. Whitmer, told LGBTQ Nation that none of the Senate Democrats knew about the change in the language, as it was introduced only a half hour before the vote.
McCann noted that any “good intention the GOP may have had was ruined by the change in the bill’s language” and lamented that the measure “nullified all of the hard work that supporters, particularly all of the kids who came to Lansing to lobby for the bill, had put into getting it through the legislature.”
“Shockingly, Senate Bill 137 will do more harm than good, said Emily Dievendorf, Director of Policy for Equality Michigan.
“Senate Republicans left our students behind in favor of partisan politics and passed a bill that actually allows more bullying,” she said. “Students and parents expect lawmakers to lead the charge against bullying, but instead Republicans made ideology more important than school safety.”
Whitmer also read a letter from Kevin Eppling, Matt’s father, in which he wrote, “I am ashamed that this could be Michigan’s bill on anti-bullying, when in fact it is a ‘bullying is OK in Michigan law.'”
Kevin Epling issued a plea Thursday for the House to reject the Republicans’ bill.
“I’m ashamed of this law,” he said in a video posted on YouTube. “They have tarnished the person whom it is named after. It does not reflect our beliefs nor Matt’s beliefs.”
Whitmer’s statement before the Senate is here; watch: