I’m Not The Only One With Moral Objections to Michigan’s “Religious Liberty & Conscience Protection Act”

This is NOT what Jesus was talking about, folks

The more I talk to people about Michigan SB 136, the “Religious Liberty & Conscience Protection Act,” the more I see that I’m not alone in my serious concerns about this bill. Not even close.

As I wrote in my guest post here last week, the bill would give everyone involved in healthcare broad rights to make care decisions based on religious or moral views — everyone, that is, except for patients.

Consider this true story: A woman who was dying in hospice had told the staff in no uncertain terms that as an atheist, she wanted no prayers administered at her bedside. Yet while she lay unconscious, a caregiver who knew this prayed over her anyway. Out loud. The woman’s family was understandably furious. Yet if the caregiver had prayed silently even I, as a fierce opponent of SB 136, would find nothing wrong with that. The caregiver would have been true to his faith without imposing it on others.

The caregiver’s actions caused no physical harm to the patient — but they did violate her express wishes and, therefore, her rights. Not to mention that no one can be sure whether this defenseless patient heard the prayers and experienced anguish over not being able to say “stop” before her family intervened.

SB 136 would extend the religious or moral right to disregard a patient’s wishes to alarming new lengths. It gives care providers the right to overrule a patient’s wishes in almost every circumstance if they violate the caregiver’s religious or moral beliefs. There is not one word in the bill about protecting a patient’s religious or moral views.

I am not alone in my belief that SB 136 is discriminatory and dangerous.

I contacted the ACLU of Michigan for their thoughts on SB 136. Here’s what Shelli Weisberg, Legislative Director, had to say:

While we all have a right to our religious beliefs, this does not give us the right to use our religion to discriminate and impose those beliefs on others who do not share them. Our laws must ensure that the health of all is never compromised by the religious objections of some. Instances of institutions and individuals claiming a right to discriminate in the name of religion aren’t new. In the 1960s, we saw institutions object to laws requiring integration in restaurants because of sincerely held beliefs that God wanted the races to be separate. We recognized then that requiring integration was not about violating religious liberty; it was about ensuring fairness. It is no different today.

There are also people of strong religious convictions who stand against SB 136. Randy Block, Director of the Michigan Unitarian Universalist Social Justice Network, testified in front of the Senate Health Policy Committee (pdf) to oppose the bill.

Here, in part, is what Block had to say:

One of the moral principles of the Unitarian Universalist denomination is that all people deserve to be treated with respect and dignity…. From a personal point of view, I want to be able to walk down the aisle with my beautiful 27-year-old daughter…. My daughter is a loving and nurturing person who wants to raise a family. However, if she were to become pregnant before or after marriage and this pregnancy turned into a life-threatening healthcare crisis, I want my daughter and other Michigan women to have the right to choose the healthcare that they need to preserve their life.

Block pointed out that the bill makes “no exceptions” for an abortion that would save a woman’s life and opens the door for discrimination against people with AIDS/HIV. He wisely added that SB 136 isn’t just about the moral and religious beliefs of care providers.

In the name of ‘religious liberty,’ SB 136 would allow employers, facilities and health insurance companies to refuse to provide coverage for any essential healthcare services they object to on religious beliefs or moral convictions. This legislation would provide an employer or insurance company an excuse, cloaked in morality, to improve their bottom line by cutting healthcare benefits. [Emphasis mine.]

Block is absolutely right. The language of SB 136 gives insurers and employers the right to deny coverage — and protects them from any legal action or “discrimination” based on their refusal to cover certain services. Once again, under SB 136, patients and consumers don’t get a say or a choice.

Many care providers have serious apprehensions about the bill, too, including the Hospice and Palliative Care Association of Michigan, which issued a position statement (pdf) opposing SB 136 in its current form.

The association stated concerns that the “explicit provision for civil penalties” if religious or moral objections weren’t honored would “create a shift away from our members’ focus of delivering quality end-of-life care.” In urging the Health Policy Committee not to send SB 136 to the Senate floor for a vote, the association said:

HPCAM’s Members already have, individually and collectively, sufficient protocols for addressing the types of conflicts the bill would seek to address… We are concerned that the bill could allow insurers, as opposed to families in consultation with health professionals, to determine the most appropriate end-of-life care — care which is highly personal and individual — for that patient.

The Health Policy Committee ignored objections from the very people SB 136 is purported to protect, and has sent the bill to the Senate for a vote.

My fundamental question remains: Exactly whose rights does SB 136 protect?

What supporters of SB 136 have to say.

Unsurprisingly, organizations like the Michigan Catholic Conference and Right to Life of Michigan are among those who support the legislation.

Many Republican Senators do, too. Although when it comes to responding to the concerns of their constituents, they’ve been less than forthright.

When contacted by constituents who oppose SB 136, Sen. John Pappageorge and Sen. Mike Kowall neglected to mention they are co-sponsors of the bill. If they feel so strongly about this legislation, why don’t they stand behind it proudly instead of hiding behind excuses? Sen. Kowall’s staff told his constituent the bill was still in the Health Policy Committee, which he is not part of, but they would forward the constituent’s concerns for his review. When the constituents wrote back asking why the Senators had not disclosed their co-sponsorship, they received no response.

Interestingly, the correspondence from Sen. Pappageorge stating his support for SB 136 used some of the exact same language chosen by fellow co-sponsor Sen. John Moolenaar, who wrote an opinion piece for the Detroit Free Press. Sen. Moolenaar asks us to consider the “psychological impact on a medical professional who is forced to remove a life-sustaining feeding tube in violation of his or her conscience.” There are no protections in SB 136 for patients who would suffer the psychological impact of not being taken off life support at their request.

An opposing viewpoint written by Sen. Rebekah Warren was published concurrently. Her focus is where it should be: on patients’ rights.

Make your voice heard.

There’s still time to voice your objections before the Senate votes on SB 136. If it passes the Senate, the number of right-to-life members in the Michigan House gives it a decent chance of becoming law.

If you oppose the bill, you can sign this petition that will be delivered to the Michigan Senate.

Be sure to read some of the signers’ comments stating why many Michiganders do not want this bill to become law. This one is among the best arguments I’ve seen so far:

If you will not tax religions, do not let them dictate government or healthcare policy. Separate church and state. This is no way to treat Michigan residents.

[Jesus Facepalm photo credit: jc-pics | Flickr]


Amy Lynn Smith is a Michigan-based writer and communications strategist who frequently covers healthcare, government and issue advocacy. In addition to her writing, she served as Deputy Digital Director for Obama for America-Michigan in 2012. You can read more from her at www.alswrite.com and you can find her on Twitter at @alswrite.

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