Monday, November 14, 2011

Michigan: Bullying is okay


In 2002, a boy in East Lansing was cornered after school by upperclassmen students. They covered him in syrup, cracked eggs on his head and beat him. The police never formally investigated the incident, and it was brushed off as a rite of passage. Welcome to high school- to being openly gay in a conservative town. Welcome to the only life Matthew Epling ever knew.

The bullying continued without respite. Relentlessly and unmercifully depriving a fourteen year old boy of his very will to live. Making him believe that he was worthless, that no one wanted him alive. Three weeks later, Matthew committed suicide.

Since his death, Matthew’s parents have pushed for legislation that would protect kids from bullying in schools, and with the Michigan Senate’s passage of “Matt’s Safe School Act” several days ago, one might think that this was achieved. Yet, in a cruel and ironic twist of fate, Matt’s name has actually been attached to a bill that gives teachers, students, and parents a “license” to bully. Senate Bill 137 compels schools to adopt a policy that prevents harassment, yet provides an exemption to bullies that have “a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction”. Essentially, in the wake of dozens of gay teens committing suicide, this bill justifies their deaths and justifies further anti-gay bullying so long as the offender can claim a sincere religious belief. Since proponents of the bill scramble behind the free exercise clause of the First Amendment to defend the policy, the pivotal issue to evaluate is whether the clause does in fact warrant this religious exemption to bullies.

For years, the Supreme Court has struggled to determine what constitutes a justifiable limitation on an individual’s free exercise rights. It is for this reason that the Court introduced the idea of a “compelling state interest” in Sherbert v Verner, stating that in order to restrict free exercise rights, the government must have a necessary or crucial reason for doing so. Consistently, the Supreme Court has interpreted this interest very generously. In Reynolds v United States, Goldman v Weinberger, Employment Division of Oregon v Smith and Braunfeld v Brown, the Court made broad interpretations of what substantiates a compelling state interest. Braunfeld v Brown particularly exhibits the Court’s tendency to employ compelling state interest carelessly. If the Court can honestly claim that a day of rest on which “people may visit friends and relatives who are not available during working days” constitutes a compelling state interest, then it’s for damn sure that protecting children from bullying in schools represents a crucial interest as well. And while I don’t always agree with many of the interests the Court has previously deemed as compelling or necessary, I do believe that this is one of the very few circumstances that justifies a limit on free exercise. Any action that violates essential human rights or subjugates another should not be given a free exercise exemption. All humans are entitled to dignity, and stripping another human being from this most essential entitlement is absolutely dehumanizing and an unjustifiable offense.

Matthew’s bullies took from a fourteen year old boy his will to live. They tormented him into taking his own life and there is simply no excuse for that. As Michigan Senator Gretchen Whitmer perceptively stated, “Not only does this [bill] not protect kids that are bullied, it further endangers them.” The Courts have already recognized in cases like Yoder and Everson that both schools and children are particularly sensitive topics, since school is not voluntary and the protection of children is a paramount concern. Thus, I am hard pressed to think of a case in which there has been a compelling state interest so great as the one present in this instance. I recognize that much of the tension over this law comes from the fact that Michigan’s decision on the religious exemption will be interpreted as the state’s endorsement of either pro-gay or anti-gay sentiment, yet there should be a bipartisan interest in providing every child with the ability to attend school free from circumstances that actively deprive him or her of the will to live. It pains me to see that this is the law we have in memory of Matt Epling.

14 comments:

Annie M said...

I only wonder who would ever propose such a law that could potentially put so many kids in danger. This new law is going to be a slippery slope of the court having to judge the sincerity of those who come before them. Bullying based on religious beliefs will open the doors to those who bully to bully and blame it on “their religion”. Bullying can never be considered acceptable on the basis of religion; there is no excuse. It is surprising to me that such a law (with such a loophole) would pass because bullying motivated by religious beliefs, I thought, was the definition of hate crimes.

Harry R. said...

I agree with Callie that stopping bullying constitutes a compelling state interest which should trump religious free exercise. Having such an exemption would be inappropriate and would severely limit the potential good which could come from this law. I read some articles about this online, and it appears that the religious exemption was contained in the Michigan Senate's draft of the law. This exemption was subsequently removed by the House. I am glad that this exemption will not become law and that strong anti-bullying legislation will be passed. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/11/11/michigan-house-passes-ant_n_1088306.html

Jean A said...

quite simply bullying of any kind should never be accepted or deemed to be okay on the basis of sincere religious belief.Religions that do not accept homosexuality are allowed to voice their opinions under the free exercise clause, however bullying homosexuals to the point of suicide should never be legal. If the court has not been able to determine religious sincerity on much bigger and broader levels, it most certainly will not be able to accurately determine whether groups of high school kids are sincere in their beliefs. The compelling state interest should prevail over any free exercise and this exemption should never pass.

Casey K said...

In Barnette, one of the first steps that the court took was to see whether the Jehovah’s Witnesses refusal to say the pledge brought “them into collision with rights asserted by any other individual”. I believe it is absolutely a right of children to not be bullied, to grant a religious exemption that allowed this to happen would definitely go against Barnette. The state has a duty to protect the rights of all citizens. Exemptions that impede on the rights of others cannot be considered constitutional.

Ally R said...

I agree with the previous comments stating that bullying based on religious belief should not be allowed in order to protect a person's free exercise. By allowing this, the state is allowing these students to criticize and try to forcibly prevent their classmates beliefs, free exercise and self expression. By allowing this law to continue, children are going to be ashamed of certain beliefs and practices, and constantly be in fear of being humiliated in front of their peers therefore inhibiting their free exercise.

Sophie K said...

I completely agree with the previous statements that bullying should not be allowed as a means to protect a person’s free exercise. I also think it will be extremely difficult to decipher whether a child is sincere in their religious beliefs. How can we be sure that a child doesn’t use their religion as a scapegoat when they get in trouble for bullying?

PamelaR said...

I completely agree with Callie that this law is ridiculous. Allowing kids to beat someone up because they don't share your religious convictions isn't free exercise of religion, it's a hate crime. Religious exemptions have been denied for much less compelling state interests, and this should be no exception.

Andrew Lichtenauer said...

In my opinion, this entire situation is tragic. Just because ruthless bullies may have "a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction," does not mean that they are allowed to do whatever they please. The terrible acts that led Matt Epling to commit suicide are in no way justified by the religious convictions of those who bullied him.

Many would argue that the terrorists responsible for the tragedies of September 11th acted upon "sincere religious beliefs" when they flew planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. If this is the case, according to the loophole in "Matt's Safe School Act," the awful events of 9/11 are somewhat justified in the eyes of the United States legal system. I understand that this is a particularly extreme example, but it begs us to ask one of the more pertinent questions that we have contemplated so far in this course: Where do we draw the line when it comes to protecting the free exercise rights of U.S. citizens?

Who's rights should we have protected in Matt Epling's case? The free exercise rights of the bully, or Matt Epling's inalienable right to live? There is no question in my mind that it is the court's responsibility to defend Matt Epling's rights and the rights of every other victim of bullying, whether or not the bullying came from a "sincerely held religious belief."

Kathryn M. said...

I agree with Annie that this law will open a horrible slippery slope because viewpoint discrimination will become a significant concern. While I abhor bullying at all, it is important that the bullies are able to maintain their First Amendment rights to express their religion through speech. These upperclassmen students should be criminally charged for attacking Matthew even if their decisions were supposedly “religiously motivated.” Had the boys attacked Matthew through verbal abuse, the students’ free speech must be upheld, regardless if it may seem socially unacceptable to the majority.

David P said...

This Bill is ludicrous. Not only does it say it is ok to bully kids who practice a minority religion, are homosexual, etc. based on religious beliefs, it puts those kids at risk of mental anguish and potentially harming themselves or others. This opens a whole can of worms for bullying, as Leviticus has some pretty interesting commands from the almighty, which gives people the grounds to bully anyone who does things ranging from wearing clothes of more than one fabric or having long hair, to taking the Lord's name in vain and being a cripple.
Although it is important to have an anti-bullying bill, the wording of this bill creates a loophole to allow bullying and put many kids directly, and legally, in harms way.

Marissa V said...

I agree with all the comments mentioned above. Any bill that would endanger children is absolutely absurd. Bullying children based off sexual orientation and justifying it by saying "their religion" is unconstitutional. Bullying is a growing epidemic in our nation and anything that would promote kids from tormenting each other is unacceptable. This violates the children's first amendment and takes their rights away. By saying this is freedom of religion is unconstitutional as it poses a threat to others well being and violates their rights in the meantime.

Zermeno A. said...

I also agree with others in that no law should be passed in order to satisfy some if it will lead to imposing harm upon others. The fact that Matt's name could be linked to such a law is also wrong because his family and friends are already in enough pain as it is. Repricusions for hate crimes should not be exempt from any case. Yes, the First Amendment may well give a bully a shield, but compelling state interest should easily overcome the hatred exemplified by such people.

Sam S said...

I agree with Callie that Bullying definitely would be a “compelling state interest” and that there should be no religious exemption. This is a clear case that shows just how bad the “slippery slope” can get. While it is everyone’s right to freely practice their religion, it is not anyone’s right to torment and bully other children to the point of suicide. I am glad to read that the religious exemption was not actually added to the Bill.

Mike HJ said...

This is indeed was a cruel and ironic twist of faith. I simply cannot see how the compelling state interest of the life of a child can be so casually overlooked in order to champion "free exercise." Personally, I do not think that any moral, religious individual (that may have a strong religious opposition to homosexuality)could perform such heinous acts and, at the same time, claim a religious justification.