Ahlquist’s Experience Highlights Need for Religion-Based Bullying Protections

Jessica Ahlquist—the Rhode Island teenager who successfully fought her school for its unconstitutional prayer display—has come under attack from multiple directions: fellow classmates, community members, and even a State Rep., Peter G. Palumbo, who referred to her publicly as an “evil little thing.”

She has been bashed on social media outlets, where she has been physically threatened, called all sorts of derogatory names, and was told “Satan will rape you in hell.” Even local florists refused to deliver flowers to her.

Ahlquist was treated this way simply for fighting against what the presiding Judge Ronald R. Lagueux called an unconstitutional intermingling of church and state, “No amount of history and tradition can cure a constitutional infraction. [The] Plaintiff … took a brave stand, particularly in light of the hostile response she has received from her community.”

If there was ever a case of bullying due to religious beliefs, this is it. It is situations like Ahlquist’s—and unfortunately so many more—that make comprehensive bullying legislation so important.

A few months back, Michigan legislators proposed state Bill 137, which would have mandated that Michigan school districts create anti-bullying policies. However, the bill made an exception for those who act due to “sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction of a school employee, school volunteer, pupil, or a pupil’s parent or guardian.” If passed, the bill would have protected the bullies—not the victims—leaving atheists, gays, and other marginalized groups unprotected, as long as the bully claimed religious privilege.

While the Michigan bill has been abandoned, Tennessee is now taking up a similar bill, which would protect bullies who engage in anti-gay bullying if they do so for religious reasons. The bill was proposed one month after a local gay teen committed suicide after being bullied at school.

Bullying has always been a problem with school kids, but it is a growing epidemic with the advent of social media and other technology that make bullied children’s suffering that much more widespread and public. 

The National Center for Education Statistics cites four major specific targets of school bullying—including homophobia and bullying based on religious beliefs. According to the National Youth Violence Prevention Resource Center nearly 15 percent of middle-schoolers have been bullied or harassed because of their religion or race.

Bullying—and in particular bullying due to religion or lack thereof—has reached epidemic proportions among youth and has serious effects on children. For children in grades 6 – 10 nearly 3.2 million are victims of bullying each year, according to GroundSpark, an organization that creates films and dynamic educational campaigns aimed at inspiring community action. Those children who are bullied are five times more likely to be depressed and far more likely to be suicidal.

In public schools, students and staff have a right to a safe learning environment—regardless of others’ religions or backgrounds. Tennessee’s proposed law is counterproductive. It protects the bullies instead of the victims, and it introduces unconstitutional religious privileging into state law at the expense of some of the most vulnerable citizens—children.

The U.S. Congress is currently considering three anti-bullying measures. Two of them specifically identify perceived or actual religion as a reason students may be victims of bullying or harassment: the Tyler Clementi Higher Education Anti-Harassment Act of 2011 and the Safe Schools Improvement Act of 2011.

The Secular Coalition supports both of these bills, because they do not include religious exemptions that neuter the intent. Any bullying bill that doesn’t protect the Jessica Ahlquists of America, quite simply, misses the point.

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