Passed by the Michigan House last week, the Religious Freedom Resoration Act has potential impact on two proposed amendments that seek to include LGBTQ protections to the state’s Elliott-Larsen civil rights act.
Modeled after 1993 federal legislation, the Michigan RFRA would grant exemptions to individuals and businesses if they feel laws substantially burden their religious beliefs. It provides for exemptions both from state laws and laws in the state’s “political subdivisions” — a term usually interpreted to mean municipalities and cities. Eighteen other states have also passed their own versions of RFRA, the original version of which is only applicable federally.
However, dozens of cities and municipalities already have ordinances protecting statuses such as sexual orientation, marital, HIV, political beliefs and arrest record. These local laws are more extensive than the state’s civil rights protections, and are in effect in polities including Ann Arbor, Royal Oak and Delhi Township. They could feel much of the law’s impact — potentially even a majority of it — especially given that the ELCRA is unlikely to be amended this legislative session.
In an interview with The Michigan Daily Tuesday, State Rep. Jim Townsend (D–Royal Oak) said RFRA could place more extensive local nondiscrimination ordinances and state law on a “collision course.”
“Basically, the bullseye is going to end up on Royal Oak and other cities that have done this, to protect everybody in their community, and it’s just gratuitous,” he said. “It’s just way beyond what is necessary to protect people’s First Amendment freedoms.”
Dan Jarvis, director of research and public policy for the Michigan Family Forum, a conservative nonprofit that advocates for the bill, said on a statewide and local level, the legislation is important because it establishes a stronger presence for religious freedom.
“What this does is it reinstates is a higher burden on the government … before they can interfere with an individual’s religious liberty,” Jarvis said.
He pointed the 2011 case of Holland landlords who refused to rent to an unwed couple and paid $60,000 in a settlement and the 2012 case of Julea Ward, an Eastern Michigan University graduate student who was expelled from the school’s counseling program because she refused to counsel gay students.
“A person’s religious activity is not strictly within the confines of a church or synagogue,” Jarvis said. “People who are trying to live out their faith take them with them throughout the day. All this legislation does is say that if government is going to interfere with a person’s right to practice their religion, they have to have a compelling governmental interest.”
In testimony to the House’s Judiciary committee last week, Rep. Jase Bolger (R–Marshall), the bill’s sponsor, attacked the idea that the bill was discriminatory; rather, he framed it as an expansion of religious liberties.
“I support individual liberty and I support religious freedom,” Bolger told the committee, according to media reports. “I have been horrified as some have claimed that a person’s faith should only be practiced while hiding in their home or in their church.”
However, opponents of the bill have levied criticism on multiple aspects of the bill, calling it too broad.
Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the Michigan ACLU’s LGBT project, said the first amendment already provides the requisite level of protection for religious freedom, rendering RFRA unnecessary.
“There’s nothing the government can ever do that can take away my ability to believe (a sincerely held religious belief),” Kaplan said. “But we’re talking about the context of non-religious activity. We’re not talking about a church, or a mosque, or a synagogue, in terms of them doing things that are ministerial functions. We’re talking about non-religious, secular activity, and we’re telling people you don’t have to follow these laws.”
In an interview The Michigan Daily Monday, State Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor) echoed Kaplan’s concerns about the bill being unnecessary. For local ordinances, he said he was concerned about the burden it might place on cities.
“One of the fears I have, is that communities will just soft-pedal enforcement of their civil ordinances because the water is so muddy,” Irwin said. “I don’t think that’s going to be as big of a problem in Ann Arbor because I think our leaders are very committed to trying to fight for the civil rights of all citizens, but I can certainly see a potential problem with a city not wanting to spend that money because money’s so tight.”
The RFRA is currently waiting to be taken up by the state Senate, which has until Dec. 18 to vote on the legislation before this year’s lame duck session ends.