Michigan GOP Passes Religious Freedom Bill Legalizing Discrimination

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Michigan GOP Passes Religious Freedom Bill Legalizing Discrimination

Martha Kempner

The Michigan house passed a broad religious freedom bill on Thursday that many believe provides a "license to discriminate" in the name of deeply held religious beliefs.

A broad “religious freedom” bill passed both the Michigan House Judiciary Committee and the full chamber in a rare fast-tracked process on Thursday. Civil rights advocates, however, call the new law a “license to discriminate” for religious people across the state.

House Speaker Jase Bolger, the bill’s sponsor, said the legislation was designed to protect those with strongly held religious beliefs from government actions that would burden their exercise of those beliefs. Bolger says the law is necessary and points to examples such as a Jewish mother who does not want her son’s body to be autopsied after a car accident.

Bolger says he modeled the bill, known as the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, after the federal law of the same name. That bill was passed in 1993 and signed into law by President Bill Clinton. This was the law at issue in the recent Hobby Lobby case. Its goal is to protect people from laws that would interfere with their sincerely held religious beliefs unless the government can prove that the law serves a compelling interest and accomplishes the goal using the least restrictive means possible.

That law only applies to the federal government but many states have passed their own religious freedom acts.

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Critics say the Michigan version is so broadly worded that it has more in common with the legislation passed in Arizona earlier this year that would have allowed businesses to refuse to serve gay and lesbian customers because of the owner’s religious beliefs.

Arizona’s Republican Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed that bill, saying it would do more harm than good. Brewer’s veto enraged staunch conservatives nationwide.

Civil rights advocates have come up with a number of scenarios in which this law could sanction discrimination. Brooke Tucker, staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan, pointed out to MSNBC: “In many religions, it’s OK for a man to beat his wife. Based on language in this bill, all he has to say is my religion allows me to do this.”

Others suggested it could allow a pharmacist to refuse to fill any prescriptions for birth control, let an EMT refuse to treat a gay or lesbian patient, or let someone at the DMV refuse to provide a driver’s license to someone who was divorced as all of these actions could be said to conflict with deeply held religious beliefs.

Bolger said these “parade of horribles” will not happen and instead the law will allow people to practice their religious free of interference.

He argued that the law focuses specifically on government actions that would infringe on religion, not the actions of individuals or businesses. For example, he said, a landlord could try to use the law against a gay tenant but it doesn’t mean he or she would win.

The ACLU disagrees. Tucker told MSNBC:

What RFRA will do is give businesses and landlords the opportunity to contest everything in court, and force individuals who are now able to live discrimination-free lives to demonstrate that the government has a compelling interest in making those landlords act in a nondiscriminatory fashion. Even if that individual prevails, he will have spent a lot of time and money, and may be out of a job or out of a home while he’s waiting.

Last week the Michigan house also passed a law that would allow adoption agencies to refuse service to people if doing so would violate their religious beliefs.

Many in the state believe this law is an attempt to make it even harder for gay and lesbian couples to adopt. Same-sex couples in Michigan already have a hard time adopting because they cannot do so jointly, which means one member of the couple would have to qualify as a single parent.

In yet another blow to gay and lesbian rights in Michigan, an attempt to expand an existing non-discrimination bill seems to have died after a hearing in the house commerce committee on Thursday. Bolger supported the effort to add gays and lesbians to those protected by the Elliot-Larsen Non-Discrimination Act but opposed attempts to include transgender people in the expanded law.

Democrats on the committee would not let the bill proceed without mention of transgender people.

The RFRA passed the house with a party-line vote of 59 to 50. It now heads to the state senate, which is also controlled by Republicans. If it passes that chamber it will go to Republican Gov. Rick Snyder’s desk.