A bill that would allow individuals to claim exemptions from certain laws on religious grounds has garnered new attention in Michigan following controversy over the passage of a similar Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana.
A RFRA bill was originally introduced to the Michigan state Senate in January. Currently, 20 states have passed versions of the RFRA following a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled a national version of the law was not applicable to state laws. Though they vary between states, RFRA bills generally allow businesses and citizens to claim exemptions from state laws if they can prove the laws violate strongly-held religious beliefs.
Proponents say RFRAs are intended to protect people’s religious expression from discrimination. In most cases, RFRAs have been upheld to protect minority religious groups from discrimination in cases where they may experience prejudice for activities such as wearing religious garb.
A similar version of the bill introduced last year failed to pass in the year’s lame-duck session.
Opponents of the bill have said the RFRA will hinder discrimination protections for multiple groups, namely the LGBTQ community. These concerns were highlighted after several incidents in Indiana have occurred — including a pizzeria that gained national attention saying it would refuse to cater to same-sex weddings.
Michael Woodford, an assistant professor of social work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, Canada who studies the LGBTQ community, said RFRAs are a concern for a variety of reasons, including their potential to imply that some groups have less legal protection than others.
“We think about the stigma and marginalization — especially when we’re talking about legislation,” Woodford said. “It’s basically saying the people we elect to make laws think that some groups should not have the same protection and there’s an inherent message in that that is really stigmatizing of a group. So if you think about young people growing up in an environment where they hear that, what kind of consequences does that have on their well-being?”
In response to backlash in Indiana, other states’ versions of the bills have died or stalled. Last week, Gov. Rick Snyder said in an interview with The Detroit Free Press he would veto the bill if it was given to him as a stand-alone bill.
During last year’s lame-duck session, the bill was introduced alongside expansions to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for sexual orientation. Protections for gender identity were also proposed, but were not supported by the Republican caucus.
“Given all the events that are happening in Indiana, I thought it would be good to clarify my position,” Snyder said. “I would veto RFRA legislation in Michigan if it is a stand-alone piece of legislation.”
Snyder told the Free Press he would not support the bill unless it was accompanied by an expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. He also said he does not want the LGBTQ protections to be included in the RFRA bill, and that he wants the two pieces of legislation to stay separate.
Woodford said he worried that an adjoining bill for LBGTQ rights would not be passed while the RFRA would.
“My concern would be, if in fact the legislation protecting — so enumerating gay/lesbian people and transgender people and such — if that would actually go through,” Woodford said.
Other experts on the issue said with or without the extension of the Elliott-Larsen Act, the RFRA won’t have a malicious impact on any group. Dr. Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia with University of Michigan ties, said even though he supports same-sex marriage, he doesn’t think the law will have a discriminatory effect.
“Most of the applications of Religious Freedom and Restoration Acts have nothing to do with discrimination,” Laycock said. “They’re about churches feeding the homeless, they’re about Muslim beards and head scarves, they’re about Sabbath observance. They’re about all the different ways in which minority religious practices come into conflict with sometimes unusual regulations.”
Laycock said some lawmakers may intend to discriminate through RFRA laws, but said viewing the laws through the lens of nondiscrimination showed that they have many more benefits and do not segregate others.
“Your right to believe in a religion doesn’t mean very much if you don’t have the right to practice it,” he said.
Wyatt Fore, spokesman for Outlaws, the University’s LGBTQ law student organization, said the organization is against the RFRA bill because it allows a group to legally discriminate against another. Like Woodford, Fore was also unsure whether extending the civil rights act would be enough to protect others.
“We very much are glad that Governor Snyder has threatened to veto RFRA, and that Governor Snyder has called for an expansion of the civil rights act, but we would need more details before we could think authoritatively on what that deal would be,” Fore said.
Fore drew a parallel between the federal government’s approach to desegregation in the 1960s with the path state governments are currently pursuing with RFRAs. He said when deliberating on the scope of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, lawmakers had two choices: ban segregation or discrimination in any businesses, or allow freedom of choice.
“These contemporary RFRA bills very much adopt the same sort of theory,” Fore said. “That is why these bills are so dangerous, not only for LGBT people, but also for all people who are protected under civil rights acts, because, if a baker can say: we will not bake for gay people, then they can also say: we will not bake for Jewish people, we will not bake for Black people. That is very much a theory of discrimination that the current law very enthusiastically rejects.”