Conservatives, LGBT, Michigan Republicans, RFRA, Women — November 17, 2014 at 4:21 pm

Under proposed Michigan law, religion could be used to discriminate


No one’s religious liberty is at risk, but the Michigan Legislature wants to use religion to infringe on the rights of others anyway.

That didn’t take long. Less than two weeks after the midterm elections, Michigan Republicans began pushing a bill that would make it legal to discriminate on religious grounds

Given the Republican majority in the Michigan Legislature — and their history of aggressive disregard for fairness and the will of their constituents — there’s a good chance this bill could move quickly and become law. Michiganders can’t let that happen.

The Michigan Legislature’s House Speaker, Representative Jase Bolger, has introduced a state bill modeled on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) — the law that has given individuals, including public institutions, a license to discriminate.

Michigan House Bill 5958, the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act (MI RFRA), “allows religion to be wielded as a sword and not a shield by encouraging Michiganders to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to violate the rights of others,” says Rana Elmir, deputy director of the ACLU of Michigan.

The bill could embolden Michiganders who want to use religion as justification for violating both criminal laws and civil ordinances. The bill could allow religion to be used to discriminate by undermining local anti-discrimination laws.

The ACLU of Michigan firmly supports religious freedom, which is fundamental to personal liberty. But the right to act on one’s religious beliefs is not absolute. It is not a free pass to ignore the law or violate the basic civil rights of others. It never has been.

Elmir told me that the fact that this bill was coupled with the updates recently proposed to the Elliott-Larsen Act makes very clear what the Speaker wants to do: He is looking to allow religion to be used to discriminate against gay and transgender people. This RFRA does not contain language preventing such a situation.

What’s more, the MI RFRA legislation could be interpreted to discriminate against virtually any Michigander. If passed, this bill would excuse any person from any state or local law that they claim “burdens” their exercise of religion. This includes beliefs that are not based in any established religion.

That means that any individual religious belief can determine which state and local laws a person chooses to honor. The bill could be used to undermine local anti-discrimination laws that protect gay and transgender people, allowing people or businesses to deny employment, housing, or services based on their religious views.

It could also be used to block women’s access to healthcare like birth control and emergency contraception, just like the federal RFRA was used in the Hobby Lobby case. What’s more, it could result in denials of healthcare services to anyone if the provider claims their religious freedom is being infringed, which could include everything from refusal to remove a feeding tube to not completing paperwork for insurance claims.

If this new law passes, it could even give people the right to argue that civil rights and non-discrimination laws, child abuse laws and domestic violence laws don’t apply to them.

My fellow Eclectablogger Emma White gave me some other excellent examples of ways H.B. 5958 could be used to violate the civil liberties of others based on religion.

  • A doctor or hospital could refuse to perform an abortion even when a woman’s life or health is threatened — which has already happened to a woman in Grand Rapids
  • Someone could be fired from their job for being gay, or pregnant and unmarried
  • A pharmacist in a small town could refuse to fill birth control prescriptions
  • A public school guidance counselor could deny counseling services to a gay teen
  • A publicly funded adoption agency could refuse to allow gay couples to adopt

Equally troubling, the language in H.B. 5958 is too broad and poorly written, with loopholes that open the door for dangerous unintended consequences for people in Michigan. For example, who determines whether a religious belief is “sincerely held” — and how is that determined? There’s also no clear answer about how this bill will impact the enforcement of state and local laws.

We’ve already seen the problem with ideological bills that are pushed through Michigan’s Legislature without regard for their long-term impact. A perfect example is the law requiring women to buy separate insurance riders to cover abortion services. Not one private insurance plan in Michigan provides this insurance, making it impossible for women who buy their own insurance to get this coverage (something Michigan Democrats are working to change). That may be a satisfying victory for the extremist anti-choice, religious-based group that pushed for this law, but it’s an unfair burden on women and men in Michigan who have different beliefs.

And that’s really the crux of the issue here. H.B. 5958 forces everyone in Michigan to be at the mercy of someone else’s religion. Asking a person whose faith frowns on homosexuality to serve a gay couple in their restaurant isn’t a violation of their religious freedom — it’s upholding the rights of gay people to be treated equally under the law. You can’t hang a sign that says “For Whites Only” and you can’t hang a sign that says “For Heterosexuals Only.”

It’s important to note that no one is telling people of faith they can’t hold fast to their principles, and nowhere do Michigan’s current laws force private organizations or religious institutions to perform same-sex marriages or hire anyone who isn’t qualified to serve the religious mission of the institution. No existing law forces people to violate the practice of their religion. Expanding protections to the LGBT community under the Elliott-Larsen Act would not interfere with the practice of religion, either. To claim otherwise is a load of hogwash.

But H.B. 5958 would enshrine discrimination into Michigan law. It would make it legal for people to be discriminated against and refused services simply because the person providing the service doesn’t share their view or approve of who they are.

“The ACLU has fought for decades to defend true individual religious freedom,” Elmir says. “We oppose H.B. 5958 because it allows individuals to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to harm others.”

America is not a Christian country. We are not a Jewish country. We are not a Muslim country. We are not a Buddhist, Hindu or Sikh country. America is a secular country. And we are a country where all faiths, every faith, can be practiced freely.

Religious freedom is one of our country’s most dearly held values — and no one, anywhere, is trying to take that freedom away from anyone. But because many members of Michigan’s Legislature hold extremist views, there’s a real possibility that a bill allowing people to use religion as a basis for discrimination could become law before the lame duck session ends in December.

The time to take action is now. Contact Governor Rick Snyder and tell him that he should veto H.B. 5958 if it gets to his desk. Remind him that he was elected to serve all of Michigan’s residents — whether he agrees with their personal views or not. And remind him that our Legislature should not even be involved in decisions of a religious nature. Religious institutions are already protected and no one is trying to take that away.

Watch for more coverage on H.B. 5958 here at Eclectablog.

[CC photo credit: Terry Alexander | Flickr]