Bolger pitches bill to shield religious beliefs

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — In the summer of 2010, a Grand Rapids woman placed an ad on her church bulletin board seeking a “Christian roommate” to rent a room in her 900-square-foot house.

The Fair Housing Center of West Michigan lodged a complaint with the state Civil Rights Department, claiming the woman was discriminating against potential renters “of other faiths.” The state dropped its discrimination investigation shortly after an out-of-state, faith-based legal defense organization intervened on the woman’s behalf.

Four years later, the incident is being cited by social conservatives as a reason why Michigan needs a stronger legal defense for individuals who don’t want to be compelled by the government to do something that violates their strongly held religious beliefs.

The House Judiciary Committee on Thursday plans to hold a hearing on Speaker Jase Bolger’s proposed Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which he says would create a “shield, not a sword” for people like the Grand Rapids woman.

“There’s a significant difference between someone who has an apartment building versus someone who is trying to rent a room in their own home,” said Bolger, R-Marshall. “It’s a very salient example.”

Bolger has been pushing the proposal in conjunction with a bill to add gays and lesbians to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act that is supposed to protect individuals against discrimination in obtaining employment, housing and public services from businesses. But that legislation is faltering in the House because Democrats won’t vote for it without added protections for transgender people.

But proponents of expanding Elliott-Larsen say Bolger’s proposal would give people a license to discriminate against gays and lesbians as the future of Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage hangs in the balance with the U.S. Supreme Court.

“They can use religion to discriminate against anybody for any arbitrary reason,” said Emily Dievendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan, an advocacy group for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community.

The legislation would “help religious people who have objections to homosexual and transgendered people to give them a way to discriminate against them,” said Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. “We see it as a sword that cuts a hole in the non-discrimination act.”

Under Bolger’s legislation, House Bill 5958, the government would have to make a “compelling justification” to burden someone’s ability to exercise their religious freedoms. The legislation is modeled after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which Democratic President Bill Clinton signed but the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled doesn’t apply to state laws.

“What the RFRA does is protect that person’s right to practice their religion freely and not be coerced into violating their conscience,” said Dave Maluchnik, communications director for the Michigan Catholic Conference.

Bolger said he doesn’t want to enable discrimination, but he’s trying to ensure a cake maker, for example, can’t be sued for refusing to bake a cake for a gay couple’s wedding if they hold the belief that same-sex marriage is a sin. “There is no license to discriminate,” he said.

Rep. Kevin Cotter, the incoming House speaker and chairman of the judiciary committee, said he’s opposed to adding sexual orientation to the classes of individuals protected under the state’s anti-discrimination law.

The Mount Pleasant Republican also has “reservations” about passing both bills and letting the courts decide whose rights prevail. “The two don’t play well in the sandbox together,” said Cotter, an attorney. “It’s not clear that one trumps the other.”

Kevin Theriot, vice president of religious liberty for the Alliance Defending Freedom, the Arizona-based group that fought the 2010 Christian roommate complaint, said the need for Bolger’s proposed law in Michigan goes beyond the gay rights debate. “That’s just the current battle,” Theriot said. “The issue is much larger.”

Former state Rep. Mel Larsen, one of the original authors of the 1976 civil rights law, said both bills should be passed.

“I don’t understand why people are afraid to support religious freedom,” said Larsen, a Republican from Birmingham. “My God, that’s something this country was founded on.”

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