After long debates and tortuous negotiations, the state of Michigan passed anti-bullying legislation, which on the face of it, should be a good thing. Unfortunately, Michigan has managed to pass a law which, despite bearing a name designed to honor the memory of a victim of bullying, may actually provide legal cover to the worst of the bullies.
The law, Matt’s Safe School Law, named in memory of Matt Epling, who committed suicide in the wake of relentless anti-gay bullying, offers a loophole to those who want to bully gay students or anyone else they don’t like. All they need to do, according to the newly passed legislation, is claim that their bullying was based on “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction.”
Although not mentioned specifically, all those who bully gay people might need to do to avoid prosecution under the new law is quote Leviticus 20:13 which condemns to death those who practice at least some kinds of homosexual sex. But this is not simply about gay people, lest anyone think that is not sufficiently problematic.
Alternatively, one who bullies Jews might escape accountability under “Matt’s Law” by simply invoking the words of another Matthew -- the Gospel author. He reports that Jews in the time of Jesus declared (Matt. 27:25), “His (Jesus’) blood be upon us and upon our children.” Presumably, one could claim that bullying Jews is nothing more than the bully’s attempt to live out the implications of these nearly 2,000 year old words.
While certainly not the only ways to understand those verses, either Leviticus or Matthew, the new law opens the door to those who would invoke them as sources in which to ground their harassment of others. Of course, one might argue that the passage of any legislation which addresses the growing problem of bullying in American schools is a victory, if only partial, and therefore worthy of celebration. They would be wrong.
In fact, the passage of this legislation may well set back the cause of protecting kids from their tormentors by moving the focus of attention from the damage bullies do, to legal wrangling about the religious and moral basis of their bullying. Instead of addressing the damage done by bullies and legislating against it, this law incentivizes debate about bullies’ intent and how they “justify” their actions against those they hate.
Ironically, it is precisely those who are often most opposed to hate crimes legislation because they focus on the criminal’s state of mind rather than upon the crime they commit, who supported a similar approach in the case of “Matt’s Law.” So while the passage of this law represents the triumph of form over substance by all, it is particularly hypocritical for those who demanded the exception for “bible-based bigotry” and “hate-driven morality.”
Classically, it is social and political conservatives who argue against hate crimes legislation that punish a crime more severely because it’s victim is a member of a hated group e.g. gays, lesbians, racial, ethnic or religious minorities, etc. Frankly, I generally share that concern, believing that it is the criminal acts, and neither the intent of the criminal nor the wider social implications of their particular crime, which should be punished. That is yet another reason why I oppose the ridiculous loophole in Michigan’s new law, and why those who supported it should as well.
If it is acts, not intentions, that the law is meant to punish, then what possible room is there for an exception for deeply held religious beliefs or moral convictions? Are those who developed this law arguing that some forms of hatred deserve protection?
Without judging the intentions of those who passed this law, now is the time to insist that the problems with it, the inconsistencies in the thinking of those who support it, and the serious problems which it may create for the very victims it aims to protect, all be addressed. Ignoring these challenges may put the blood of the next generation of victims on those who fail to do so. How ironic. How tragic.