The Elliot Larson Civil Rights Act was created to ban discrimination of individuals in the areas of employment, housing, use of public accommodation, public services and education. While this act covered many different people when it was first written in 1976, it does not include any protections for LGBT individuals. Since 2005 there have been several bills proposed to add LGBT protections to the Elliot Larson Civil Rights Act, none of which have made it out of committee.
. The Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) is based on the Federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed into law by president Bill Clinton in 1993. Other states that have their own state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act are Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Missouri, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
Recent and Current Bills
During the last legislative session, State Representative Sam Singh (D-69th District) introduced bills that would amend the Elliot Larson Civil Rights Act to include LGBT protections. Conservative members of the legislature did not want to include gender identity in the legislation. When gender identity was taken out of the bill, many LGBT activists refused to support a bill that only included protections for sexual orientation. Representative Singh’s bill never made it out of committee. However, Republicans in the House introduced a different anti-discrimination bill. The Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, House Bill 5958, was introduced by former Speaker Jase Bolger (R – 63rd District) and was passed by the House. RFRA states "laws neutral towards religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise". To solve this problem the proposed solution is that government can only interfere with someone practicing their religion if it is inhibiting the "furtherance of a compelling government interest" and they use the "least restrictive means of furthering that compelling government interest". This bill never made it to a vote in the Senate or to the governor’s office for a signature. However, it has been reintroduced in the Senate this session. Senate Bill 4 was introduced by Make Shirkey this term and was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has been sitting since January 20th.
There has been controversy surrounding these bills since the amendments to the Elliot Larson Civil Rights Act were first introduced last session. The LGBT community tends to oppose this bill because protection for transgender individuals is not included. In the legislature, the issue has become highly partisan. While this bill was co-sponsored by all fifty Democratic Representatives, only one Republican Michigan House member, Frank Foster from the 107th district, came out publically supporting adding sexual orientation to civil rights protection. His stance on this issue possibly cost him his seat in the Michigan House. Soon after supporting these protections he lost the primary in his district. Jase Bolger’s spokesman, Ari Adler, was clear that Bolger was against discrimination but “[wanted] to be careful that [they] [weren’t] doing anything that would force someone to violate their religious teachings”. He said that Bolger wanted to find a balance between non-discriminatory practices and protecting individual’s religious beliefs. Out of this need to find such a balance came the Republican-backed Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act. This bill was passed in the House, and was supposed to be paired up with the Elliot Larson Civil Rights Act, though that never made it to the floor for a vote. The RFRA has faced considerable opposition and has been called a “license to discriminate” since business owners and employers can legally refuse service or refuse to hire an individual if they can back these actions up with their religious beliefs. Just recently Indiana signed a Religious Freedom Restoration Act into law and it is highly controversial. The law is getting very negative national press and many people have been saying that they’re going to boycott Indiana. Governor Rick Snyder released a statement after Indiana signed RFRA into law saying that he would veto the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act unless it was paired with an expanded version of the Elliot Larson Civil Rights Act that would protect LGBT individuals.
Senate Bill 4 is currently sitting in the Judiciary Committee and does not have a hearing scheduled. The path that these bills have gone down showcases the climate that Michigan politics is currently experiencing. The state tends to be heading in a more conservative direction. Consequently, the state of LGBT rights is probably not going to improve much in the next two years. These policies highlight the problem of conflicting rights for people expressing their religious freedoms and people needing protection from discrimination. The dilemma faced by legislators is how to protect the civil rights of LGBT individuals while allowing for religious freedom. Is there a way for people to have total freedom to express their religion while at the same time creating laws to ensure that individuals aren’t discriminated against? An example of this can be seen recently in Utah where they sought to bridge the gap between the strong religious element and the LGBT community. Being called the “Utah Compromise”, it aims to protect people from discrimination, while still allowing individuals to practice their religion. For example, it is illegal in Utah to deny LGBT people housing or jobs in the general housing market, but there are exemptions for housing owned by religious organizations such as Brigham Young University. This could possibly be a direction that Michigan could go to try and find a balance between religious freedom and civil rights.
Article 37.2101–37.2804, Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, Act No. 453 of 1976. Retrieved on December 8, 2014.
"THE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT." THE RELIGIOUS FREEDOM RESTORATION ACT. Web. 2 Mar. 2015. <http://www.religioustolerance.org/rfra1.htm>.
"State Statutes : Religion : Religious Liberty Archive : Lewis Roca Rothgerber LLP." State Statutes : Religion : Religious Liberty Archive : Lewis Roca Rothgerber LLP. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <http://www.churchstatelaw.com/statestatutes/religiousfreedom.asp>.
"Hopes of Adding LGBT Protections to Civil Rights Law Dashed as Focus Pivots to Politics." Hopes of Adding LGBT Protections to Civil Rights Law Dashed as Focus Pivots to Politics. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <http://michiganradio.org/post/hopes-adding-lgbt-protections-civil-rights-law-dashed-focus-pivots-politics>.
"A Little Revenge Politics at the State House." A Little Revenge Politics at the State House. Web. 6 Mar. 2015. <http://michiganradio.org/post/little-revenge-politics-state-house>.
"'Historic' Bill That Aims to Balance LGBT Rights and Religious Freedom Unveiled." Fox13nowcom. 4 Mar. 2015. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.
"Snyder to Veto Religious Freedom Bill Sans LGBT Protection." Web. 7 Apr. 2015. http://www.lansingstatejournal.com/story/news/politics/2015/04/02/snyder-veto-religious-freedom-bill-sans-lgbt-protection/70824310/