Sneaking this hearing in on a historic day for the LGBT community is dirty politics. Take action to make sure testimony opposing RFRA legislation gets heard.
It’s hard not to be cynical about the timing of the Michigan Senate committee hearing on “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) legislation on April 28th. The same day DeBoer v Snyder, the case for marriage equality, gets its day at the U.S. Supreme Court, Michigan Republicans have scheduled hearings on RFRA legislation similar to the RFRA legislation passed in Indiana that caused a rightful uproar. The Indiana legislation was changed after it was passed into law to include more protections for the LGBT community, but many critics say those protections don’t go far enough.
Michigan Senate Bill 4 claims to be all about protecting people of faith from government interference in their religious practice — which is a right so fundamental to America that it’s already protected under the U.S. Constitution. But as usual with most RFRA legislation, SB 4 is vaguely worded. That leaves the law open for interpretation that puts people’s rights at risk.
This is particularly true for the LGBT community, which is not protected under Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Since there is no law to protect the rights of the LGBT community there is no protection for LGBT people against religious discrimination that would be enshrined into law by SB 4.
But RFRA legislation has the potential to harm anyone — Muslims or Christians who are refused police protection or medical care by someone of a different faith, single mothers who are denied housing by someone who thinks they are sinners, or a teenager who is refused school counseling because he has a drinking problem that goes against someone’s beliefs. The more vague the language of the bill, the greater the danger.
Another troubling aspect of SB 4 is the vague definition of “exercise of religion,” which leaves it open to broad interpretation. From the bill:
‘Exercise of religion’ means the practice or observance of religion, including an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.
In other words, beliefs that would be protected by the Michigan RFRA do not have to be part of any recognized religion.
SB 4 states that its purpose, in part, is to “provide a claim or defense to persons whose religious exercise is substantially burdened by government.” If the U.S. Supreme Court makes marriage equality the law of the land, could SB 4 be used to claim that legalized same-sex marriage places an undue burden on people’s religious beliefs? Again, the vague language of the bill makes that seem like a reasonable possibility, especially given that some Republicans have already said they’ll defy any Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage.
SB 4 would put the rights of Michiganders at risk. Everyone can agree that religious freedom is fundamental to the American way of life. But we also have the right to freedom from religion — to live in a country where we aren’t burdened by the religious beliefs of others.
In a release, Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie Scott spoke out against the scheduling of the hearing on SB 4:
It’s insulting for conservatives to think they can sneak this type of legislation past the eyes of the public by pushing it out the day the Supreme Court is hearing a monumental case that could finally bring about progressive change to this country…. This sleight of hand by the Republican leadership won’t fool the public and they should be ashamed of even giving this legislation the time of day. This rush by the GOP to enshrine discrimination into state law is a waste of resources and the legislature’s time. RFRA hurts families, is bad for businesses and would make Michigan a national embarrassment.
It’s essential that testimony opposing SB 4 be heard by the committee — and seen by Governor Rick Snyder, who has promised to veto RFRA legislation that was not accompanied by an expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include the LGBT community.
Make your voice heard. You can attend the hearing on Tuesday, April 28 at 3 pm in room 110 of the Farnum Building, 125 W. Allegan Street in Lansing. You can also provide written or oral testimony by contacting the committee clerk by sending an email or calling (517) 373-1721.
Let the Michigan Senate Judiciary Committee know that Michigan does not want religious discrimination enshrined into law.