FACT CHECK: Did The Catholic Church Pressure Republicans To Add A Religious Exemption To A Michigan Anti-Bullying Law?

Elias Atienza | Senior Reporter

The New Yorker reported that the Catholic Church pressured Republicans to add a religious exemption to anti-bullying legislation in 2011.

Verdict: Misleading

The Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC), which represents the Catholic Church on policy issues in Michigan, withdrew its endorsement of the bill after the religious exemption amendment was added to the legislation, according to the National Catholic Reporter.

Fact Check:

In a profile of Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, the New Yorker reported that the Catholic Church pressured Republicans to add a religious exemption to an anti-bullying law in 2011.

“Burton recalled an episode from December, 2011, when Whitmer was the minority leader in the state senate, and getting just about anything done depended on her relationship with the Republican majority leader, Randy Richardville. Whitmer had spent years working on an anti-bullying law with the family of a fourteen-year-old boy in her district who had killed himself after an eighth-grade-graduation hazing ritual. The measure was set to pass, but, at the last moment, the Republicans, under pressure from the Catholic Church, added a clause exempting bullies who claimed a religious justification.” (Emphasis added by Check Your Fact.)

This reporting about the Catholic Church pressuring Republicans, however, is misleading.

Check Your Fact could not find any news reporting that the Catholic Church supported a religious exemption to the bill. Check Your Fact reached out to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which referred Check Your Fact to MCC. The MCC describes itself as “the official voice of the Catholic Church in Michigan on matters of public policy.”

Jacob Kanclerz, a spokesperson for the MCC, said in an email to Check Your Fact that the organization “never asked” for a religious exemption and supported the original bill.

“Michigan Catholic Conference, which serves as the public policy voice for the Catholic Church in Michigan, offered support for the anti-bullying legislation from the time of its introduction in the spring of 2011. The legislation, as introduced, had no religious exemption, and we never asked for one,” Kanclerz said. “Later on in the legislative process, a new substitute version of the Senate version of the bill was introduced for the first time on the Senate floor and was adopted on a party line vote.”

He added the Michigan House did not take up this version of the bill and advanced its own version without the exemption. The Michigan legislature later passed a version of the law without the exemption, which was signed by former Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder Snyder, according to CBS News.

Kanclerz said that a “representative of MCC was at the bill signing in support.” (RELATED: Viral Post Misstates Facts About Catholic Rites For Stillborn Babies)

The MCC wrote in its 2011-2012 “Advocacy Report on the 96th Michigan Legislature” that it supported the bill. This report did not detail whether or not that the MCC asked for a religious exemption, but the National Catholic Reporter reported in 2011 that the MCC withdrew its endorsement of the bill after the religious exemption amendment was added to the Senate version.

The National Catholic Reporter wrote:

“The Michigan Catholic Conference supported the anti-bullying bill that emerged from committee, but to their great credit, when the religious exemption was added on the floor of the senate, the Michigan bishops withdrew their support for their bill. In a phone interview yesterday, Dave Maluchnik, the Director of Communications for the Michigan Catholic Conference, confirmed that the bishops withdrew their support for the bill because of the religious exemption amendment.”

Holly Fournier, a spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Detroit, told Check Your Fact in an email that the archdiocese “was and is in alignment with the MCC on matters of public policy, including this one. There is no indication that the Archdiocese worked separately to ask for or support the exemption.”

Richardville, a Republican who was the Michigan Senate majority leader in 2011, told Check Your Fact in a LinkedIn direct message that there was “[n]o pressure from the Catholic Church to me.” He also said he did not recall if any other Republican had been pressured by the Catholic Church.

A New Yorker spokesperson said to Check Your Fact that the outlet “confirmed this point with people who were there at the time, and we stand by our reporting.” The New Yorker later updated its reporting to note that the outlet “failed to include comment from Michigan the Catholic Conference” and that the MCC denied it initially supported the anti-bullying clause. This update was issued after Aug. 7.

Check Your Fact has reached out to Whitmer’s former chief strategist Mark Burton for comment.

Update 8/17/2023: The New Yorker updated the reporting in the referenced article, mentioning they “failed to include comment from the Michigan Catholic Conference” in its initial reporting. The verdict remains unchanged.

Elias Atienza

Senior Reporter
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