The latest holdup for an anti-bullying bill at the statehouse is a partisan battle over the rights of private schools. The legislation would make it a crime to harass another student because of his or her religion, race or sexual orientation, but the Iowa Senate today rejected a House-endorsed proposal that would let church schools teach their religious views against homosexuality.
Senator Jeff Angelo, a Republican from Creston, says without that amendment, the anti-bullying policy will be "fertile ground" for trial lawyers. "I am in favor of a policy in public and non-public schools to protect children from being bullied," Angelo said. "However I believe the concern is sincere and it’s a narrow one that there is the potential for a chilling effect on the teaching of religious doctrine through the filing of lawsuits, because of the way the bill is worded." Angelo says the amendment’s language is meant to address a potential fear among his constituents that the bill becomes fertile ground for (a) lawsuit.
But Senator Mike Connolly, a Democrat from Dubuque, says lawsuits haven’t flooded the courts in the other states that have adopted anti-bullying policies which forbid bullying against gay students. Connolly says 29 states have passed similar anti-bullying legislation and it hasn’t led to a lot of lawsuits. "You people have consistently raised these arguments that just don’t hold up," he said.
Connolly says the constitution already grants private schools the right to teach religious doctrine, so they don’t need extra protection from the legislature. Connolly says kids should have a "safe, civil environment to learn," and he says the data about harassment inside schools is alarming. Senator Paul McKinley, a Republican from Chariton, says the bill is simply "feel-good legislation" that won’t do anything.
"Why don’t we just pass a law against tornadoes, and see how far that goes?" McKinley suggested. He says the bullying bill is well-intentioned but would be better if it simply outlawed bullying of all kids. He called the bill "a playground for trial lawyers" who McKinley predicts will file lawsuits against classroom teachers. The bill now goes back to the Iowa House for consideration.