Lansing — State Sen. Mike Shirkey made an impassioned case for a proposed state religious protection law Tuesday at a committee hearing, then had to defend it against arguments from two fellow senators and other opponents who said it could open the door to discrimination.

Protecting citizens’ rights to the free exercise of religious beliefs is “an affirmative duty of government” under the U.S. Constitution, said Shirkey, R-Clarklake, who has reintroduced legislation similar to a proposed state religious freedom restoration act that failed to win approval last year.

He said his plan mirrors a federal religious freedom restoration act sponsored by the late U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, and signed into law by Democratic President Bill Clinton in 1993. Far from being a broad invitation to show bias, he said, it gives citizens protection against erosion of religious rights.

But Sen. Tory Rocca, R-Sterling Heights, in at times sharp exchanges, challenged Shirkey to say whether it creates a religious reason for an apartment owner to discriminate against gay or racially mixed couples. Shirkey said that was a civil rights issue unrelated to the legislation he proposes.

Democratic Sen. Steve Bieda, also a committee member, said such unintended consequences might result from what he conceded was a well-intentioned effort by Shirkey to protect constitutional rights.

Shirkey said his bill contains a series of rigorous tests a case would have to meet before a court could consider a claim pitting religious beliefs against a “compelling public interest.”

Opponents testifying at the hearing included Jami and Krista Contreras, an Oak Park gay couple who were denied service last October from a Roseville pediatrician they had chosen for their daughter’s first examination. They were told the pediatrician had “prayed on” whether to care for their child before deciding against it, Krista said.

“I pray that when she’s 6 years old she won’t be treated the same way and ask why,” she added.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, said he was shocked by the case, which received national publicity, but doesn’t feel it is directly related to Shirkey’s proposal.

There was no vote on the bill. Jones had agreed to hold a hearing only, at the request of Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive. Amber McCann, his spokeswoman, said the 27-member Senate GOP majority has no consensus at this point.

Such proposed legislation has become controversial as the U.S. Supreme Court ponders Tuesday’s oral arguments about whether gay marriage bans in Michigan and elsewhere are constitutional. Republican lawmakers may want to see how that decision comes out in June before considering any action, McCann said.

Earlier this year, an Indiana religious freedom restoration act led to a storm of criticism, including from officials of its capital city, Indianapolis, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association headquartered there. Amid threats that major corporations would steer business and facilities away from the state, lawmakers and Indiana Gov. Mike Pence revised the new law.

Gov. Rick Snyder has said he would veto a religious freedom restoration bill unless it was accompanied by legislation expanding Michigan’s civil rights act to specifically prohibit discrimination against gays.

The Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce officially registered its opposition to Shirkey’s bill Tuesday and hailed the decision from Senate leaders not to act on it.

“By not acting on this legislation, we are allowing Michigan’s re-emergence as a national economic leader to continue,” the chamber said in a statement. “The Detroit Regional Chamber applauds the decision not to move on these bills and looks forward to partnering with the governor and Legislature in creating a Michigan where all are welcome to succeed.”

Supporters of the bill include the Michigan Catholic Conference, Right to Life of Michigan and Michigan Family Forum.


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