Snyder vows to veto religious freedom bill

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Gov. Rick Snyder is vowing to veto a religious freedom bill similar to Indiana's controversial law if it is not accompanied with legislation extending anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians.

Some conservative Republican lawmakers are advocating a Religious Freedom Restoration Act for Michigan, even after Indiana Gov. Mike Pence has come under national scrutiny for signing a similar bill that critics say could let business deny service to members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.

Late Thursday, Indiana lawmakers rushed to pass clarifying legislation that prohibits businesses from refusing service to an individual based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. Pence signed the bill. In Arkansas, the governor signed similar legislation Thursday after last-minute revisions.

Snyder's fellow Republicans have been divided about whether to add sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to the list of protected classes under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in hiring, firing, housing and business services.

"Nobody should be discriminated against in housing or employment or public accommodations, and we need to make sure we respect the rights of the faith-based organizations and religious values," GOP Attorney General Bill Schuette said Thursday in a statement to The Detroit News.

Snyder spokeswoman Sara Wurfel said the Republican governor has been "pretty clear" about his stance on the controversial topic.

"(Snyder would) veto any RFRA legislation that comes as a standalone bill," Wurfel said Thursday. "It's about ensuring freedom of religion but also equality — both basic founding principles of our country. He understands there are strong passionate opinions on both sides."

"But he thought it was important to make sure there was no ambiguity given the conversation here in Michigan, in our neighboring state and nationally," Wurfel said in an email.

On Tuesday, Snyder made vague comments in response to a reporter's direct question about whether Michigan lawmakers should continue pursuing a religious freedom bill in light of the political firestorm that engulfed Indiana's Republican governor.

"What I've said on that in the past is that I didn't really support doing that independent of looking at Elliott-Larsen and really looking at changing Elliott-Larsen in Michigan to include more protection," Snyder told reporters after an event at the Detroit Economic Club.

Snyder sought to clarify his stance Thursday.

In January, state Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, reintroduced a Michigan version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act that would require the government to have a "compelling justification" to burden people's ability to exercise their religious freedoms.

Shirkey said Thursday he won't be deterred by Snyder's rare veto threat.

"It tells me he's made his mind up and there's not much room for negotiation. (But) just because he says it doesn't mean it's right," Shirkey told The News. "It is my intention to do my best to get (the bill) to the governor, and then he can make his decision on what he chooses to do with it."

The question is whether the bill will get to Snyder's desk.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has said the religious freedom legislation is not "a top item for the Senate" Republican caucus. Meekhof sent Shirkey's bill to the Senate Judiciary Committee, which has not held a hearing on it.

Shirkey noted how unusual it is for Snyder to take a position on a bill before it even passes one chamber of the Legislature.

"He usually couches his positions a little more delicately," Shirkey said.

Snyder's vow to veto the religious freedom bill earned him praise from the liberal political group Progress Michigan and one powerful business ally.

"It's not easy to go against your base. Thank you @onetoughnerd," AT&T Michigan President Jim Murray, who is gay, said Thursday on Twitter. "It takes guts to do the right thing sometimes. You deserve a lot of credit."

Equality Michigan opposes any effort to pass the religious freedom bill in tandem with the anti-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians, said Emily Dievendorf, executive director of the LGBT advocacy group.

"Michigan will not benefit from a so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and packaging these bills together could still harm Michigan families and bring the type of justified uproar to Michigan that Gov. Snyder is trying to avoid," Dievendorf said in a statement.

Michigan Democrats and LGBT advocates have argued the religious freedom law would give business owners a right to discriminate against people who don't adhere to their religious beliefs.

Shirkey said opponents and the national media have created a "false narrative" about what the law does.

If gay marriage were legalized, Shirkey said, the religious freedom law would protect a protestant minister from being sanctioned by the government for refusing to perform a same-sex marriage ceremony.

"RFRA does not give anybody a right to discriminate against anybody," Shirkey said. "The only right it infers is the right to defend one's self if sued by government action."

But the issue of whether individuals with religious belief against homosexuality should have a right to refuse service to gay people has taken a new turn in Michigan's Legislature.

The Republican-controlled House narrowly passed legislation on March 18 that could empower faith-based foster care and adoption agencies to turn away gay and lesbian couples who want to adopt a child by invoking their "sincerely held religious beliefs." Supporters have said such couples would be directed to another adoption agency.

Staff Writer Michael Martinez contributed.