With control over every aspect of Michigan’s government, Republicans are no longer even trying to hide their contempt for anyone they disagree with.
By the time you read this post, there’s a good chance the Michigan GOP will have pulled another underhanded stunt. They’re becoming an everyday occurrence. But for now, I’ll focus on two power grabs on April 28 that are turning stomachs and eliciting rightful indignation across the state.
First, there was the Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) legislation (Senate Bill 4) proposed by Republican Senator Mike Shirkey. At 4 p.m., when testimony began, committee chair Republican Senator Rick Jones made it clear the meeting would end promptly at 4:30 p.m. Sen. Shirkey then grandstanded about his legislation for a full 20 minutes — followed by questions. That’s not a hearing. That’s a filibuster.
His arguments were inaccurate and condescending, full of misinformation about the alleged need for a RFRA bill in Michigan and promises that a RFRA law would never be used to discriminate against anyone, even though discrimination under RFRA is distinctly possible, especially against LGBT people who do not have civil rights protections in Michigan. Sen. Shirkey repeatedly claimed that the Michigan RFRA bill is identical to the federal RFRA law, which is patently untrue. He then speculated about the reasons why people oppose RFRA legislation — even though there were many people who had traveled to Lansing to explain their opposition to SB 4 for themselves.
When Sen. Tony Rocca challenged his fellow Republican, bringing up legitimate ways RFRA laws could be used to discriminate, Sen. Shirkey refused to answer. He just kept asserting the need for a RFRA bill to protect religious freedoms that are already protected in the U.S. and Michigan Constitutions.
Finally, at nearly 4:30, voices of opposition were heard when Sen. Jones allowed 15 additional minutes for testimony. Krista and Jami Contreras of Oak Park shared their personal experience of being turned away by a pediatrician who had a religious objection to the fact that the couple are lesbians. Under RFRA, they pointed out, that doctor would have protections but they would not.
There was also powerful testimony from Todd Christianson, a combat veteran who said the language of the RFRA bill reminded him of extremist religious positions taken by the Taliban he once helped fight.
Then there was Sommer Foster, director of political advocacy at Equality Michigan, who rightfully pointed out that RFRA legislation gives people permission to ignore the law. From her testimony:
As a person of faith, I recognize the importance of freedom of religion, which is why I am proud to live in a state and country that protects these freedoms in our constitutions. But the rule of law matters, and Americans want our government to treat everyone equally under the law and not discriminate. People entrusted to serve our community – such as doctors, paramedics, school counselors, and elected officials – should not be able to pick and choose who they are going to serve based on their religious beliefs.
In the end, Sen. Shirkey was allowed to have the last word on his discriminatory legislation in closing comments. No vote was taken and Sen. Jones promised that if the committee were to bring SB 4 to a vote, additional testimony would be heard.
Forgive me if I feel disinclined to trust this promise, given that this first hearing was rushed on to the schedule on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on marriage equality — and went on despite opposition to RFRA made public by major Michigan businesses. If Senate Republicans think those of us who support equality for all would be too distracted to care about the RFRA hearing, they were sorely mistaken.
House Republicans were equally mistaken about their ability to fool the public when they pushed through a last-minute amendment to their proposed budget that slashes all funding for Planned Parenthood. The reason? Planned Parenthood provides elective abortions, and there are legislators who think their ideology trumps the best interests of Michigan’s citizens. Just three percent of the services Planned Parenthood provides is abortion care. The rest is well-woman care, family planning — including birth control — cancer screenings, and other reproductive health services.
The vote on the budget wasn’t even supposed to take place until the next day, but House Republicans rushed the vote to sidestep the inevitable backlash when the public learned they were cutting funding for women’s healthcare and many other essential services for Michiganders.
Democratic Representative Winnie Brinks issued this statement after the vote:
This afternoon, just minutes before the House budget was presented for a vote on the House floor, an amendment was introduced to block funding for family planning. This was a tradeoff to appease a handful of ultraconservative representatives in order to secure their votes on the budget. Cutting this funding is an unacceptable affront to women’s ability to decide if, when and under what circumstances to have a family.
Bear in mind, everything I wrote about here happened in one day. Just one day. Unfortunately, there will be more days like this, because Michigan Republicans are so confident that they can fool the public into thinking they’re doing what’s right for their constituents that they no longer care about trying to hide their disrespectful, despicable tactics.
But we are smarter than that. Don’t let them out of your sight. And when you see something, say something. Right now, our best defense is the public outrage Michigan Republicans so rightfully deserve.