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Michigan Senate panel revives religious objections bill

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — The religious objections debate that sparked a national backlash against Indiana and its political leaders is headed back to Michigan.

The state Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing Tuesday on a proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act that critics say would enable discrimination against gays and lesbians. The legislation would require the government to have a "compelling justification" to burden people's ability to exercise their religious freedoms.

Advocates have said the legislation doesn't allow discrimination but instead gives Michiganians with deeply held religious beliefs a possible legal defense against government action in some cases.

It's similar to legislation Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed last month that caused him and fellow Republicans to backtrack after being scorned by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, some big businesses, other governors, Democrats and the media.

State Sen. Rick Jones, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, said he's not letting the fallout in Indiana prevent him from holding a hearing, though he's not planning a vote Tuesday.

"We have all of this uproar because the Democratic Party manipulated everything so they could have a political assassination of Gov. Pence," said Jones, R-Grand Ledge.

Pence's prospects for a bid for the Republican nomination for president next year have been seen as diminished since he came under fire for signing the RFRA bill last month.

Jones said he won't have his committee vote on the bills at the request of Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive.

"The majority leader believes that RFRA warrants a hearing, but that further caucus discussion is also warranted on the topic," Meekhof spokeswoman Amber McCann said Thursday.

The legislation is Senate Bill 4, sponsored by state Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who revived a religious objections bill that died last year.

Gov. Rick Snyder has vowed to veto the bill if it is not accompanied by separate legislation extending anti-discrimination protections to gays and lesbians.

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.

Even as the Senate GOP leader holds him at bay, Jones said he wants to have a "spirited debate on the issue."

"I believe RFRA has absolutely nothing to do with the LGBT community," Jones told The Detroit News.

The legislation is modeled after the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Nineteen states have their own version of the federal law.

"There was never any concern out of the Democrats when Ted Kennedy sponsored the federal RFRA and Bill Clinton signed it into law," Jones said. "There was never any concern out of the Democrats when Barack Obama as a senator in Illinois voted for RFRA."