Anti-Bullying Bill: God’s Permission to Bully?

Fact:  At least 10 people have committed suicide in the past decade due to bullying.

Fact:  One of those 10 was 14-year-old Matt Eppling from East Lansing who was driven to suicide after being bullied by his classmates in 2002.

Fact:  Michigan is one of 3 states in the nation that hasn’t enacted an anti-bulling law to address bullying in schools.

"God doesn't let gays into Heaven!"

Recently, the Michigan state legislature has been working on an anti-bullying legislation.  On November 2nd, the Michigan Senate passed their version of the anti-bullying bill.  This bill, entitled “Matt’s Safe School Law” named after Matt Eppling, “doesn’t abridge First Amendment free speech rights or prohibit expression of religious or moral viewpoints” (  Many Democrats opposed this bill because they feared that this clause would open the doors for bullies to harass other students who are LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer).  Democrats tried adding an amendment that would restrict bullying based on characteristics such as “race, gender, and sexual preference,” but this was turned down.

A week later, the Michigan House passed its own version of an anti-bullying bill.  By a 88-18 margin, they agreed that the language of the bill passed by the Senate was unacceptable and they would work out some form of compromise.  This House bill requires all districts to have an anti-bullying policy which they must present to the Michigan Department of Education.  It also excludes the “religious exemption” clause suggested by the Senate.  Although Democrats wish there was more protection for the students in the bill, Republicans feel that it is the duty of local level officials, rather than state level officials, to write a more detailed anti-bullying policy for their particular district.

The “religious exemption” clause reminds me of what would happen in an “Emersonian” society.  Emerson is entirely against looking to conventional morality to decide what is right and wrong.  Rather, he believes that one should look to his own soul to determine what’s right and wrong.  He states, “The only right is what is after my constitution, the only wrong what is against it.”  This can lead to a very dangerous, lawless society in which people fall victim to self-deification and virtually become their own God.  With the “Matt’s Safe School Law,” critics claim that the “religious exemption” will allow bullies to defend themselves by saying that it was based on some type of religious or moral grounds.  Some people have raised concerns that comments will be made such as, “You’re going to hell because you are gay” and this will be defended by a bully who says his religion is anti-gay.

The most recent news reports say that the state legislature is moving toward an anti-bullying bill that excludes an exemption for “religiously motivated harassment.”  This is largely the result of public outrages, which say that giving religious people a loophole to bully is absolutely ridiculous and unacceptable.  TV comedian Stephen Colbert even mocked the bill by saying, “Bullying is just fine, as long as you get a permission slip from God.”  Fortunately the House has already voted against a “religious exemption,” now we just need the Senate to come to their senses.

About Courtney M

University of Michigan undergraduate student
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10 Responses to Anti-Bullying Bill: God’s Permission to Bully?

  1. hadasbrown says:

    While I understand why you deem the religious exemption clause Emersonian, I believe that it is worth noting that Emerson’s intention is to have the exact opposite of such instances occur. It has been conventional wisdom to turn a blind eye to bullying, particularly against homosexuals. It has only been over the past few years that this intense uprising against bullying has occurred. Thus, one could argue that those who presented and advocated for such bills in the first place were the Emersonian individuals, for they recognized a problem in society, and based on their own personal evaluation of moral standards, sought to mitigate it.

  2. dfox13 says:

    I agree with this previous comment. I would also like to add that because Emerson is against anything preventing individualism, he would be in favor of preventing kids from bullying. He’d hold this view because bullying puts restraints on individualism and forces many to live in fear of doing certain things. Emerson would support an all-encompassing bully bill. Emerson would want kids to be able to be themselves, rather than strive to blend in to avoid being a target of a bully. Individualism is the top priority for Emerson, and any bill protecting it would have his support. Of course the counter-argument is that the bully is being an individualist by bullying, but I believe Emerson would argue that their individualism should be exercised in a manner that does not restrict the individualism of others.

  3. jlpach says:

    I agree with the comments above as well. By allowing a “religious exemption,” essentially the government is agreeing to submit to moral conventions, organized religion being the moral convention in this case. I believe the idea of “religious exemption” relates to Emerson’s ideas on the past versus the present. Emerson would say that there cannot be a religious exemption because individuals would resort to the conventional views of religion in referencing past biblical stories and the morals that had originated from older religious texts and doctrines. Emerson states, “If, therefore, a man claims to know and speak of God, and carries you backward to the phraseology of some old moldered nation in another country, in another world, believe him not… Is the parent better than the child into whom he has cast his ripened being? Whence, then, this worship of the past?” (“Self-Reliance,” 28). Emerson would see this religious exemption as not only hindering to individualism, but allowing society to use conventional religious morals be an excuse for their behavior. To Emerson, religion was based on the own spiritual connection with God, and that individual connection establishes morals separate from the morals developed by society throughout history.

  4. Andrew Mack says:

    Bullying is definitely a major problem in the United States today and it seems to be getting more an more attention from the media over the past few years. I know that in Massachusetts, there has been a lot of talk about how to address bullying in school and on the internet. In my opinion, the religious exemption for bullying is absolutely ridiculous. There is no situation where bullying is acceptable. Hopefully all states find a way to appropriately handle this situation to avoid any more suicides or the other negative effects that bullying can have on victims. This was a great, and interesting, connection to our class material.

  5. zacha90 says:

    I think one of the problems in a constitutional democracy is the need to balance rights against each other in a manner that is best for all. Religious freedom does not extend to being able to physically harm others. At that point the state should be weighing the physical safety of the child against the “religious” freedom of others. I feel the Republican goal is to ensure their constituents, who are more likely to be conservative and religious, that they will not abridge religious rights on any ground. This sounds fine on paper, but is harmful in practice in the case of bullying. I don’t believe Emerson would allow for others to bully on religious grounds because he would argue they haven’t looked inside themselves to find a true sense of good. Their moral basis for hating other groups would most likely have been taught to them by their religious community or parents, which undermines the individualism he strived for in his writings. He’d probably tell the bullies to go take a hike in the woods. (Literally)

  6. allenle2011 says:

    Emerson would definitely disagree with the religious exemption in this bill. Emerson hates convention in society, and this bill blatantly allows people to look to conventionality to determine if bullying is justifiable or not. Emerson said “good and bad are but names readily transferable to that or this”. He would never want conventions of religion, and what that religion thinks is good or bad, to determine if bullying if ok. Also, In the social media world we live in today, bullying is expanding at a rapid rate. Therefore, it is imperative that Michigan passes an anti-bullying law soon.

  7. brianoconnor16 says:

    I agree with the point made above regarding the intentions of Emerson. His intentions were good, in that people would look within themselves and find morally correct ideas upon societal issues. I think an underlying message Emerson conveys is the idea that all people are innately good. They simply must discover this ‘goodness’ within themselves. Otherwise, it seems likely that Emerson would have seen the inherent flaws in his argument. If some people were inherently bad in the world and all people looked within themselves, chaos would undoubtedly occur. I would argue that even if all people looked within themselves and come to identify what is morally correct, there would still be a broad range of resulting thoughts produced. Conflict would likely occur because of the dissimilar viewpoints.

    You highlight an interesting point about religion unfairly having the ability to justify actions such as bullying. I think that the Michigan senate must be reminded of the separation of church and state, and protect the rights individuals facing unjust bullying. Protection of individual speech is important, but not at the expense of the natural rights of other citizens. If students bully others based on religious values, the government must step in prevent this from occurring. States must put the onus upon themselves rather than pass the responsibility to local governments. State action ensures unified protection for all individuals, whereas local policies could have differing policies that would not ensure this protection for all individuals. I hope the senate ‘comes to their senses’ as you mention and protects the rights of individuals facing bullying in Michigan school systems.

  8. Laura Clark says:

    I am all for free speech and the first amendment rights, but I really think bullying is unacceptable even if it is due to “religious reasons.” In the case of a school, I think civic republicanism is a better model than classical liberalism. The good of the whole, as in creating a safe community for everyone by banning bullying, is more important than the bully’s individual rights. I agree with the posters above. I believe Emerson would want everyone to look inward for the right answer (bullying is in no way acceptable), rather than stick to conventional morality, which asserts that the kids should take matters into their own hands.
    I am from the east Lansing area, and it devastates me that Matt, a kid in a community so close to my own, chose to end his own life because of bullying. I think the Michigan senate needs to realize that Matt’s right to life is way more important that a bully’s right to be a stupid jerks.

  9. bah2011 says:

    I enjoyed your blog and I think it highlights a pressing issue that may have otherwise been over looked. I think you bring up a valid point that the “religious” exemption is inline with Emerson. He valued self-reliances so much I that he would feel that it is not that governments job to protect students from bullies, but instead you must independently protect yourself from bullies. I this displayed the dangers that can come from following the Emersonian model. Is individualism really worth putting school children in harms way? I think that we can all agree that individualism does not trump the welfare of kids.

  10. goblue9123 says:

    In my opinion, I have never taken the freedom of speech or religion to apply to emotionally or physically harming another human being. Instead, my own understanding is that these freedoms are viable to the extent that they benefit the individual without harming others–without infringing on the equally important values of others. They are meant to protect one’s ability to believe what they want, not to be used as a mechanism of criticizing or subordinating others. The very right of the freedom of religion affirms that all religions and beliefs are lawfully protected in this nation. It is not intended to be used as a means of asserting the supremacy of any one over the others.

    It is for this reason, that I too believe that Emerson would support action to prevent bullying. The very idea of bullying assumes that an individual is targeted and attacked for standing out from some conventional idea within the majority. However, Emerson has a distinct disdain for conventionalism. Instead, he believes that each individual should stand unique and alone–they should look inside themselves for the answers not to some whole notion of a society. He would likely reject any such clause that would support that a conventional thought, like religion, might be justified to judge another individual.

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