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Mich. House Approves 'License to Discriminate'

Mich. House Approves 'License to Discriminate'

Conservative lawmakers in the Michigan House of Representatives have stopped beating around the bush when it comes to discriminating against LGBT people under the guise of "religious freedom."

Late Thursday, the Republican-led House approved the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which opponents say gives wide coverage for organizations and individuals to refuse service to those who do not adhere to the same "deeply held religious beliefs." The bill passed along a party-line vote of 59-50, and will now move to the Republican-controlled State Senate for consideration, notes LGBT blog The New Civil Rights Movement

Supporters of the legislation, fast-tracked through the House by Republican Speaker Jase Bolger, contend that it protects an individual's right to free exercise of religion from being unfairly burdened by government restrictions. Bolger has rejected the characterization of opponents that his bill would create a "license to discriminate." 

Instead, he explained to Michigan site MLive, the legislation would create a two-pronged approach for official redress for those who believed their religious freedom was restricted by the state or an employer. 

"An individual would have to prove that a law substantially burdened their sincerely held religious belief," explains MLive. "The government could then prove it had a compelling interest for enacting the law, and that the law achieved a policy goal using the least restrictive means possible."

The RFRA is based on similar federal legislation that the U.S. Supreme Court has determined should not apply to states, notes MLive. It is also broadly reminiscent of a similar effort to pass a so-called license to discriminate bill in Arizona, which was ultimately vetoed by Republican governor Jan Brewer, after substantial outrage among citizens and businesses operating in Arizona. In Mississippi, Gov. Phil Bryant did sign such a bill into law this year.

As passed, Michigan's RFRA would allow individuals and businesses to refuse service to those seeking treatment that contradicts the religious beliefs of the provider, opponents of the bill testified on Thursday. During the House debate, Rep. Vicki Barnett speculated that the bill could allow a pharmacist to refuse to provide birth control to a customer, citing the pharmacist's religious beliefs, according to advocacy group Progress Michigan.

"I should not be forced to follow the religion of my pharmacist," Barnett, a Democrat, said on the House floor Thursday, reports MLive. 

Progressive groups lambasted the entire bill in a statement Thursday, noting that the free exercise of religion is strongly protected in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. "The idea that we need to ‘restore’ religious freedom — rights that are already enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — is a farce created by conservative lawmakers for the sole purpose of appeasing their far-right donors and the religious-right," Progress Michigan executive director Lonnie Scott said in the statement.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan confirmed to MLive that similar legislation in other states has resulted in pharmacists refusing to fill birth control prescriptions based on their personal religious beliefs, and speculated that the bill could permit a landlord required by local nondiscrimination ordinances to rent to a single mother to file a religious freedom complaint against the city. 

Just one day before the full House passed Michigan's RFRA, a House committee failed to approved a bill that would have protected Michiganders against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, reports MLive. That legislation was complicated by a November effort led by Speaker Bolger to amend the proposed bill to exclude mention of gender identity or expression, only offering protection against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Bolger initially introduced the RFRA as a counterpart to the nondiscrimination act, but decided to continue pursuing the former even after the latter died in the House committee. 

Shortly after the House approved the RFRA, MLive notes that the same body approved a Republican-backed bill that allows religiously based adoption agencies to refuse to place children to families if the agency has "religious objections" to the placement. 

In response, House Democrats offered this biting tweet: 


Michigan's Republican governor, Rick Snyder, who has waffled on his position about an LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination bill, was reelected to a second term in November. He has encouraged the state legislature to consider updating the state's Civil Rights Act but has not indicated how it should be updated, according to MLive.

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