Summary: The Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act was re-introduced by the Senate as Senate Bill No. 4 on January 20, 2015 through the Judicial Committee. A very similar House Bill 5958 passed through the House quickly last year with a 59-50 party line vote but stalled in the Senate. The purpose of this bill is to create a limit of action from the Michigan government, “to burden a person’s exercise of religion and would allow a person to assert such a burden as a claim or a defense in a judicial or administrative proceeding”.
. This bill is targeted to offer protection from government penalties to individuals who choose to exercise their religious views by denying goods or services to someone that does not hold their same religious practices or values. "Exercise of religion" according to Senate Bill No. 4 is described as “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 ”.
The sponsor of this bill, Senator Mike Shirkey from Clarklake argues that RFRA is protecting the fundamental values of the United States granted to citizens by the First Amendment. He wrote in the Detroit Free Press on April 7, 2015, “Far from being a "license to discriminate," both the federal RFRA and proposed Michigan RFRA are a shield to make sure people retain their full First Amendment rights and have an opportunity to defend themselves if governmental laws or actions unfairly impinge upon their sincerely held religious beliefs. The opposite would mean a country where government could freely trample on any religion”.
Controversy erupted nationally because of Indiana’s RFRA law. Governor Snyder announced that if it is passed in the Senate as a stand-alone bill he plans to exercise his veto power. Sandy Baruah, CEO of the Detroit Regional Chamber spoke against Michigan following the same path as Indiana. Baruah warned that the reaction to Indiana's RFRA law should be a teachable moment for Michigan. "The business community is in a war for talent. We're desperately trying to find the best and brightest to come and work in Michigan. And we want all talented people to feel welcome and encouraged to make Michigan their home”. "We need every competitive advantage in that fight, and this would put us at a competitive disadvantage," he added.
History: This controversial bill is based on the federal, Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1993. The RFRA was declared unconstitutional as applied to the states in City of Boerne v. Flores, 1997. However, for nearly 20 years the Religious Freedom act had broad support from both liberals and conservatives. This changed in 2013 when the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case permitting corporations to use religious beliefs to avoid government mandates such as providing insurance for birth control.
Michigan currently has a non-discrimination law, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, written and passed in 1976. This law currently prohibits discrimination due to religious beliefs against individuals in respect to some categories such as age and race. However, no statewide protections for LGBT exist, so discrimination against those individuals have frequently occurred with no legal repercussions.
Most recently the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act has offered further inclusions. Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed Public Act 190, a 2009 amendment that increased employment protections for pregnant workers. Court decisions have also affected the act. In 2000, a special panel of the Michigan Court of Appeals ruled in Zanni v. Medaphis Physician Services Corp. that the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits age discrimination against younger employees and job applicants. Thus, the proposal would essentially ratify the circumstances already in place.
In general, the proposal has created an acrimonious partisan debate while also triggering multiple discussions by lawmakers in the state.
Controversy Ignites over the RFRA Bill
HB 5958 failed last year, and was reintroduced by the Republican Majority in the Michigan Senate on January 20, 2015.
Supporters: The RFRA Bill is supported by the Tea Party. According to the Religious Freedom Coalition, “The bill’s passage in the Michigan House is an encouraging sign that religious freedom is on its way to making a comeback in America. Our nation was founded on the principle of religious tolerance and this bill is a great step towards reviving that tradition in America”. Statements made by those favoring the RFRA include but are not limited to the following:
Former Speaker of the House Jase Bolger introduced the original bill, HB 5958 through the House in November 2014. Republican Bolger said, “People simply want their government to allow them to practice their faith in peace”. He based his argument on the First Amendment.
Constitutional law expert William Wagner, a supporter of the bill, said in USA Today, December 5, 2014, "This is about asserting a religious belief against a government action," he said, not between individuals. "The question is, are we still going to be tolerant of religious communities?"
Tom Hickson of the Michigan Catholic Conference, favors the bill: "A Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act is good for tolerance and diversity, it is good for individual and religious liberties, and it is for the common good of society."
Against: Opponents of the bill fear it would enable discrimination under the pretext of religion, especially against LGBT individuals. Statements made by those opposing the RFRA include but are not limited to the following:
Rep. Jeff Irwin opposes the RFRA Bill stating, “It gives license to discriminate”.
Michigan Civil Rights Commission has viewed the proposal as a setback to the cause of expanding civil rights.
Fatina Abdrabboh, the Michigan director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said the RFRA could lead to discrimination if signed into law. She added that Arab and Muslim Americans would be especially affected by the act.
Rana Elmir, the deputy executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU-MI), also criticized the bill. She said religious beliefs should not be used to violate others' rights.
“In many religions, it’s OK for a man to beat his wife,” Brooke Tucker, staff attorney at the ACLU of Michigan, told MSNBC. “Based on language in this bill, all he has to say is my religion allows me to do this.”
Cooley Law School professor Curt Benson says by itself such a law will not mean much. “Right now it’s legal to discriminate against same-sex couples or transgender people. It is legal in Michigan to do that. You suffer no legal repercussions.”
Rebutting the supporters of the bill, Rabbi Jason Miller, a popular speaker and writer on technology and its effect on the Jewish world wrote, ‘The Religious Freedom Restoration Act, allows individuals to put their religious beliefs above civil law and cause hardship for other individuals’. Rabbi Miller furthered his argument by stating, “In Judaism, we believe that the law of the land trumps religious law. We are instructed to follow Jewish law, but not if it comes into conflict with the laws of our nation or state. We have always been able to practice our religion freely in this country. What this bill would do if the Michigan Senate passes it and then is signed by the Governor is force religious beliefs onto others. And that is immoral”.
Opinion: Michigan government should strive to protect her citizens from economic exclusion. 89% of the nation's Fortune 500 employers, including General Motors, Ford, AT&T and Hewlett-Packard, have non-discrimination policies that include sexual orientation. Employers like these seek to attract and retain a diverse workforce in states where all people are treated fairly under the law. Overall, in my opinion the reason this bill is creating so much controversy is because the government should not support nor promote any discrimination. Each case should be made and brought to the higher courts and treated blindly. The aim of the government should be to protect and serve her citizens. Both sides have a compelling argument but ultimately the First Amendment protects both sides. So ultimately, my opinion is that this law is unnessary.
Shirkey (January 20, 2015). “Michigan Senate Bill No. 4”
Editor2 (December 8, 2014). “Michigan House Passes Religious Freedom Bill; the Left FREAKS OUT”. Religious Freedom Coalition. Retrieved April 4, 2015.
Erb, Henry (December 6, 2014). "Religious Freedom Bill Could Create LGBT Legal Issues". Grand Rapids, MI: WOOD-TV. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
Gray, Kathleen (December 7, 2014). "Religious Freedom Bill Passes out of Michigan House". Detroit Free Press. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
Gray, Kathleen (March 31, 2015). “Could Michigan Become next Indiana on religious Freedom”? Detroit Free Press. Retrieved April 13, 2015
Miller, Jason (December 11, 2014). “Freedom of Religion Shouldn’t be Unconditional”. Time Magazine. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
Pluta, Rick (December 16, 2014). “Prospects for “religious freedom” bill dim as protestors rally”. Michigan Radio, News for Michigan. Retrieved April 3, 2015.
Sen. Shirkey, Mike (April 7, 2015). “Shirkey: RFRA provides no license to discriminate”. Detroit Free Press. Retrieved April 13, 2015.
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