Religious Right Attacks Federal Bullying Intervention

As the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights moves to intervene in the much publicized uptick in suicides of teenagers around anti-gay bullying, the reaction from the religious right spans the spectrum from predictable to just plain demagoguery.

The guidance, issued earlier this week in the form of a “Dear Colleague” letter to more than 15,000 schools and schools districts and more 5,000 colleges and universities across the country, “for the first time, provides a clarification that bullying of gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered students based on gender stereotypes is considered harassment.”

While the letter does not create any new laws for schools to follow, it is, according to Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Russlynn Ali the first time “that the Department has made it clear that students that are members of the gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered [sic] community are protected by Title IX if they are bullied or harassed for not conforming to traditional gender roles.”

This clarification was quickly criticized in a typical fashion by Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, who said the guidelines deny kids bullied for religious reasons unequal access to justice.

”If we understand the new federal guidelines correctly, they establish special protections for, for example, a male student who is bullied for wearing a dress to school, while a young woman who is bullied because she’s seen praying at lunch is denied equal access to the same protection under federal law. This specially anointed victimhood status for some, but not for others, makes clear why the last thing we need patrolling the halls of our local schools is a federally appointed bullying monitor.”

Actually, with the surge in teen suicides, that really is exactly what we need in schools – closer monitoring of bullies and school-wide policies that will enforce protections across the board.

Glenn could have a point, of course, if there were a rash of suicides of kids bullied for praying over their lunch – but Ali said the statistics show that most religious bullying takes place not because of religious practices, but because of perceived religious ethnicity – like being Jewish or Muslim. In those cases, federal discrimination laws would protect any religious persecution, since religion is a protected class under federal discrimination statutes.

On the demagoguery side of the spectrum comes Buddy Smith, Executive Vice President of the American Family Association who asserted that kids can condemn homosexuality without being a bully:

”Activist adults essentially are saying that American parents who want their kids to avoid high risk homosexual sex acts and remain abstinent until traditional marriage, are harming kids. This is preposterous, and local parents and communities need to resist enforced political correctness.”

This is, of course, the old red herring that “political correctness” will lead somehow to the thought police patrolling the halls, forbidding kids from even thinking bad thoughts about other kids. Certainly, parents are able to teach their kids to not engage in high risk sexual behaviors or pre-marital sex without demonizing another entire group of people. It’s called teaching your kids to be responsible for themselves. Still, it doesn’t preclude teaching respect for the beliefs of others instead of demonizing them as people who believe in “high risk homosexual sex acts” or premarital sex for all!

Matters are not made any better when you have people like Clint McCance in Arkansas, the vice-president of the Midland School District in Pleasant Plains who wrote on his Facebook page that the only way he’d wear purple to honor the memories of kids who had committed suicide over anti-gay bullying was “if they all commit suicide.”

After days of silence, McCance finally appeared on CNN this week to apologize and has said he will resign his position. But, the incident shows just what the Department of Education is up against. These anti-gay feelings are rampant not just in the student population, but all the way up through teachers, administrators, and school board members. The guidance is much needed, but teeth that bite are also needed from the government.

Any real consequences for not following through on a bullying ban, however, would really make the religious right howl. They, and their Tea Party compatriots have it in for the Department of Education, and would like to see it eliminated. Anytime the department is perceived as overreaching their authority simply gives them more ammunition for their agenda to ultimately kill the department itself.

“It’s time that extremists stop exploiting tragedy to push a selfish political agenda,” said J. Matt Barber, Director of Cultural Affairs of Liberty Counsel.

Yes, Matt, it most certainly is.