Religious protections bill passes Michigan House

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing — Michiganians with deeply held religious beliefs could assert them as a legal defense against government action under legislation that cleared the state House Thursday evening.

The GOP-dominated House voted 59-50 along party lines to send Speaker Jase Bolger's proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act to the Senate.

Bolger's House Bill 5958 would require the government to make a "compelling justification" to burden someone's ability to exercise their religious freedoms.

Rep. Vicki Barnett, D-Farmington Hills, said the legislation could create a new right for service providers to discriminate against people who don't adhere to their religious beliefs. She cited a scenario in which a pharmacist could refuse to dispense drugs to an individual who's personal decisions don't match the teachings of their faith.

"I should not be forced to follow the religion of my pharmacist," Barnett said.

Barnett and other Democrats said the bill would create legal conflicts with the state's anti-discrimination law and spawn a rash of new lawsuits.

"That's something I would concede that we simply cannot control," said Rep. Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant.

Bolger, R-Marshall, said claims by opponents that the bill creates a license to discriminate "are absolutely untrue."

The bill is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act signed into law in 1993 by Democratic President Bill Clinton. The U.S. Supreme Court later found law doesn't apply to state-level statutes.

"Claims that this is unchartered territory ... are untrue," Bolger said on the House floor. "This is not new."

Bolger said the bill provides the same religious liberties that were afforded to incarcerated inmates in 2000.

"I am asking you today to give Michigan's law abiding citizens the same protections as Michigan's incarcerated felons have," Bolger said before the vote.

The House Judiciary Committee passed the bill 7-4 along party lines Thursday morning.

In testifying before the committee, Bolger cited incidents around the country in which people have claimed the government is interfering with their religious beliefs through enforcement of different laws and ordinances. Those examples include a Jewish family objecting to an autopsy of a slain family member — as often required by law — because the mutilation of the corpse violates their religious beliefs.

Frederick Hoffman, an attorney at Clark Hill PLC in Detroit, testified against the bill, saying it would only lead to new court battles over whose rights prevail in claims of discrimination.

"My colleagues in the legal profession have found that there's lots of new business as a result of passing this legislation," Hoffman said.

Hoffman testified personally against the bill. But he's part of the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, a group of 80 businesses urging the Legislature add gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender under the umbrella of the state's anti-discrimination law.

Republicans on the committee defeated a Democratic amendment that would have prevented an individual from using the religious freedom law as a defense for not abiding by the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

"Any changes in this law that could send a signal — real or perceived — that Michigan is less open and could negatively impact our business community," Hoffman told the committee.

Democrats who voted against the bill said it would allow people to assert religious beliefs in discriminating against gays and lesbians.

"I believe it provides a license to discriminate," said Rep. Jeff Irwin, D-Ann Arbor.

Bolger has declared legislation adding gays and lesbians to the civil rights law is dead for this session because Democrats refuse to vote for the bill without added protection for transgender individuals.

clivengood@detroitnews.com

(517) 371-3660

Twitter.com/ChadLivengood

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