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.