SOUTH PORTLAND — For state Rep. Terry Morrison, it’s not quite back to the drawing board, but it’s close.
The South Portland Democrat sponsored a bill in the just-concluded session aimed at prohibiting school bullying and punishing bullies. The bill enjoyed popular support among lawmakers and easily passed initial in votes. The governor had pledged to sign it into law, too.
But the bill nearly died in the Senate last week, thanks to an action alert from the Christian Civic League of Maine that urged legislators to vote against its final approval, Morrison said.
The bill’s co-sponsor, House Minority Leader Rep. Emily Cain, D-Orono, had to switch her vote in order to have the bill reconsidered by committee. House rules stipulate that a member must have voted on the prevailing side in order to save a bill from what Cain called “the dead pile.”
The move was necessary because if a bill is defeated on the floor, it can’t be brought back in the next session. Morrison and Cain didn’t want all their work to go to waste.
Cain said she wouldn’t speculate about what exactly made so many lawmakers change their minds at the last minute, but Morrison was blunt.
“The underlying factor for a lot of the Republicans was that they thought that this was a ‘gay bill’ and they didn’t want to vote for that, especially with me as the messenger,” said the legislator, who is openly gay. “They thought this was the ‘gay agenda.'”
The civic league action alert, which was sent to 2,500 recipients and Republican lawmakers, claimed the bill didn’t adequately protect the First Amendment rights of students who “may express opposing views or opinions.”
“When it comes to the moral issues of homosexuality, should a student be allowed to talk about that at a lunch table?,” Carroll Conley Jr., executive director of the league, said in an interview. “Is that going to be considered harassment or discrimination? We felt that those First Amendment rights were not appropriately protected.”
The alert also claimed that because Morrison received help drafting the bill from Mary Bonauto – a lawyer with an extensive history litigating cases for proponents of gay rights – the proposal was a product of ideology, not a desire to protect students. Bonauto is also civil rights project director for Gay & Lesbian Advocates and Defenders, or GLAD, a nonprofit gay-rights organization.
Morrison said he and Bonauto had worked together on the proposal, and on the campaign for gay marriage last year, but dismissed the claim that his bill was designed as part of a “gay agenda.”
“We have gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender youth that are being picked on, sure, and I never denied that. But that’s only a portion of the people I’m worried about,” Morrison said. “It’s about the children in schools that are afraid to go to school for fear of being picked on, punched or kicked or beaten up.They’re being denied an education.”
Conley also said he was concerned about the scope of the bill, which would require school employees to report any bullying at school, or anywhere else where the bullying may affect a student at school.
“I do not feel it is a school administrator’s legal burden to be liable for managing that situation,” Conley said. “We are against bullying. We are against hateful, mean-spirited action. But we can’t just jump, react and respond. The legislation has to be effective.”
Now that the Legislature has adjourned, Morrison has time to gather support for the bill before the Legislature reconvenes in January 2012. In that time, he said, he’ll try to meet with Gov. Paul LePage, who he hopes can convince some of the Republicans to support the measure.
Morrison said he can’t help but feel that his name alone may have caused the bill to languish on the floor at the last minute.
“If another representative, who was straight and somewhat conservative as a Democrat, put it forward, it would have gone through,” he said. Now, he has to “brainstorm to find out – other than me being the primary sponsor of the bill – what obstacles we are facing.”
Morrison said he may have to scale back the bill, taking away it’s mandate to school districts, effectively turning it into a recommendation rather than a law.
Though both sponsors were both unsure what the bill would look like by January, Morrison and Cain pledged to be back to address the issue of next year.
“This is about protecting all kids,” Cain said. “That’s what’s gotten lost in this. … I work in a college environment, and the impact of bullying stays with kids for a long time, and not in positive ways. We can do better, and I think we should.”
Edited on July 8, 2011, to correct the spelling of Carroll Conley Jr.’s name.
LD 1237, “An Act to Prohibit Bullying and Cyberbullying in Schools,” failed in the Maine House of Representatives on June 28. Here’s how local legislators voted:
• Rep. Heather Sirocki, R-Scarborough: No.
• Rep. Amy Volk, R-Scarborough: Yes.
• Rep. Jane Eberle, D-South Portland: Yes.
• Rep. Bryan Kaenrath, D-South Portland: Yes.
• Rep. Terry Morrison, D-South Portland: Yes.
The District 121 seat in Cape Elizabeth is empty.
The final vote was 80-54 against passage. The bill needed 101 affirmative votes to pass.