The Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, as spelled out in House Bill 5958, would create a substantial burden on our communities, by letting individuals avoid abiding by any state or local laws they say “hinder” their exercise of religion, and by enabling them to file suit challenging local ordinances and regulations.
It could allow individuals to argue that laws outlawing discrimination, child abuse and domestic violence don’t apply to them. That includes laws passed by cities such as East Lansing to protect gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender residents from discrimination, protections they currently don’t have under Michigan law.
Even if local governments are ultimately successful in defending their ordinances from frivolous legal challenges, they’ll still need to spend untold sums of taxpayer dollars in court to do so. This bill isn't a shield to protect religious liberty. It is a sword that can and will be used to challenge the application of all manner of local ordinances.
If this bill becomes law, a police officer could argue that he or she should not have to protect a church, mosque or synagogue, citing his or her religious beliefs. An emergency room doctor could refuse to treat a gay teenager since his or her religion holds that homosexuality is morally wrong. A man could claim that domestic violence laws don’t apply to him because his religion teaches that a husband has the right to discipline his family – including his wife and children – as he sees fit.
These are not outlandish hypotheticals. We’ve already seen the very real negative impacts of similar laws in other states.
Dallas was forced to spend $1 million in a legal battle over requiring local religious groups to follow city food safety standards when preparing and serving meals. In Tulsa, a police officer, citing religious freedom, refused to attend a police appreciation community event aimed at building better community-police relations held by a local Islamic society.
Passing this law will legitimize discrimination in every community across our state.
Even conservative politicians such as Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer have balked at RFRA bills in their states. She vetoed similar legislation, stating that “the bill is broadly worded and could result in unintended and negative consequences.”
East Lansing was the first community in the nation to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation in March 1972. We have long prided ourselves on being a community that values inclusion and embraces diversity. We are the only community in Michigan to earn a perfect 100 rating on the Human Rights Campaign’s Municipal Equality Index. We have worked hard to make our community welcoming to all who might wish to live, work, raise a family or start a business in East Lansing.
If passed, Michigan's RFRA will undermine decades of work done by our community. We can’t claim to be working hard to attract the best talent for our businesses and universities while passing policies such as RFRA that we know will drive talented people from our state. Communities are in a pitched battle to attract and retain the best and brightest in Michigan, but we can’t win that battle if we are constantly being undermined by a legislature bent on adopting discriminatory legislation.
RFRA has passed the Michigan House and is now in the Michigan Senate. Now is the time for Michigan citizens to speak out.
Lawmakers shouldn’t pass a bill that could lead to court-clogging lawsuits, expensive legal bills for cities seeking to protect their citizens, or legalized discrimination. For these reasons, I urge our legislators and Gov. Rick Snyder to keep this ill-advised bill from becoming law.