Seth Perlman/AP
Illinois Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago, is the sponsor of a bill requiring Illinois schools to discourage bullying. The bill will require schools to adopt anti-bullying policies, but it faces opposition from conservative groups including Illinois Family Institute and Concerned Christians of America.

Bullying legislation prompts opposition from conservative groups

A new bill in Illinois would require schools to adopt anti-bullying policies, but the Illinois Family Institute and Concerned Christians of America say that the law  would challenge certain students' religious and moral beliefs.

Some Illinois conservatives fear their children are about to face an assault on their morals and religious beliefs. They worry that state lawmakers will muzzle students who hold unpopular opinions and force them into indoctrination sessions.

The cause of their worry? Legislation requiring Illinois schools to discourage bullying.

The Illinois Family Institute claims the measure's real goal is "to use public education to promote unproven, non-factual beliefs about the nature and morality of homosexuality and 'transgenderism'." It sees the bills as a beachhead for "homosexual activist organizations" that want to indoctrinate students and teachers.

Despite those broad concerns, the group's position is narrower in negotiations at the state Capitol. Lobbyist Ralph Rivera says the Family Institute will drop its opposition if the legislation makes clear that students can skip events and lessons they find objectionable.

A closer look reveals little in the legislation itself to justify the institute's fears. It would not tell local schools what to say about bullying, let alone anything specific about homosexuality. It would not require schools to hold assemblies or teach lessons about tolerance.

What the bill would do is spell out the steps that must be included in schools' anti-bullying policies. For instance, they would have to make the policy available to students through a website or school handbook. They would have to let students report bullying anonymously and spell out what steps could be taken with a student who has bullied classmates.

At the same time, the institute's request for a specific "opt out" provision is not unprecedented. Illinois laws already let students opt out of sex education and animal dissection if they have moral objections.

Groups supporting the legislation include the Illinois State Board of Education, American Civil Liberties Union, Illinois Safe Schools Alliance and the gay rights groups Equality Illinois and The Civil Rights Agenda.

Joining the Illinois Family Institute on the other side is the Concerned Christians of America.

Based on the recommendations of a state task force, the bill says a school's bullying policy must include a definition, a statement that bullying is against the law and procedures for accepting and investigating anonymous reports. The policy would have to explain what steps might be taken with a bully, such as counseling and community service, and it would have to be available to students and parents.

The only lessons in tolerance mentioned in the legislation are for students who have bullied others. Schools would be required to take steps that teach bullies "personal and interpersonal skills" and "build and restore relationships." How to do that is left up to each school and each community.

Rivera, the Family Institute's lobbyist, said the group opposes the bill but not its overall goal. "I want to always stress that the IFI wants a zero-tolerance policy on bullying," he said.

The group's main concerns, he said, are protecting students from being accused of bullying simply for stating their beliefs and from being forced to participate in lessons that contradict their religious beliefs. For instance, a student who does nothing more than share his opinion that homosexuality is immoral shouldn't be labeled a bully and put through counseling that says his religion is wrong.

To address those fears, the legislation's backers included language saying it is not meant to "infringe upon any right to exercise free expression or the free exercise of religion or religiously based views." At the IFI's request, they placed that statement in a prominent spot near the beginning of the legislation.

Then the IFI asked for a provision saying students and teachers can skip anti-bullying lessons and events that they feel are contrary to their beliefs. Supporters rejected that idea.

Khadine Bennett, legislative counsel for the Illinois branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, said that's partly because the measure only narrowly passed the House. Sending it back now with such a major change might kill it, she said.

What's more, she and others say, the change is unnecessary. Students can already opt out of lessons that conflict with their beliefs.

While state law specifically lets students opt out of dissection and sex education, the State Board of Education says there's no blanket rule letting students skip anything where they have moral objections. Still, spokesman Matt Vanover said it's common for schools to work with students and adapt lessons to accommodate such concerns.

Although the bill doesn't tell schools what to say about homosexuality, the IFI remains concerned that the "completely unnecessary" legislation is really about lecturing students on what to believe and contradicting the lessons of parents who have moral objections.

Not so, insisted one sponsor, Sen. Heather Steans, D-Chicago.

"This bill has nothing to do with that," she said. "The idea is to really stop bullying."

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