Jacques: 'Fair and Equal' could unfairly harm faith-based work

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Paul Propson just wants to fulfill his mission to the people of Metro Detroit. 

As CEO of Catholic Charities of Southeast Michigan, Propson’s goal is twofold: to serve the church and serve the community. The organization helps more than 20,000 people every year, from its behavioral health programs and substance-abuse counseling to foster care and adoption and senior care. 

Propson’s faith is integral to his work. It’s the reason he does it.

“This duty we have, we’re bound to do as part of our faith,” he says. “We recognize as Catholics, to say we believe something, and then not to act on it is in fact not to have any belief at all. Taking action is part of the faith, part of being Catholic.”

Paul Propson

These faith-based services — from Catholic to Muslim — are at risk. Propson and many others who do this work in Michigan believe that their undertaking is being targeted.

The latest push to include more protections for the LGBTQ community in the state’s 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act does more than just broaden the definition of sex to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression.” 

Fair and Equal Michigan, which spearheaded a ballot proposal last year, also wants to add a new definition of religion in the anti-discrimination law that includes these words: “the religious beliefs of an individual.” 

It’s this phrasing in Section K of the initiative that has the religious community concerned. 

The backers of Fair and Equal chose the word “individual” for a reason. Elliott-Larsen currently defines “person” as an individual, agent, association, corporation and labor organization, in addition to other entities. 

Section K makes it clear that religious protections don’t extend to an organization. 

Many religious groups hold strong beliefs on the definition of marriage and the differences between men and women, and they fear this would make them a target of discrimination lawsuits and could push them out of the marketplace altogether. 

If you think that’s far-fetched, just look at the legal battle in Michigan between Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel and St. Vincent Catholic Charities over its child-placement services. Nessel would rather force St. Vincent to stop doing this work than allow it the option of recommending same-sex couples work with another agency. 

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Both the Michigan Catholic Conference and the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI) have conducted legal analyses of the proposal’s language and have come to the same conclusions. 

“Section K is highly problematic for us,” says Dawud Walid, executive director of CAIR-MI. “We believe people should not be coerced or compelled to act against their sincerely held religious beliefs.” 

This summer, the Board of State Canvassers — at the recommendation of the Bureau of Elections — did not certify Fair and Equal’s petition on the grounds that it didn’t meet the required number of valid signatures to make the ballot.

The canvassers applied the same rules to its evaluation as it does any ballot initiative. But the backers of Fair and Equal want special treatment. They filed suit with the Michigan Supreme Court to “reevaluate” the signature qualification rules for petitions like theirs. 

Essentially, they want the high court to force the Bureau of Elections to sample signatures from a larger pool — and they want to be able to use the 18,000 signatures they gathered “electronically.” That is unprecedented in Michigan, and current election law does not specify that electronic signatures should count, so the bureau threw them out.

But even without those, Fair and Equal submitted more signatures than the required 340,000, yet still came up short of the number of valid signatures to move forward with getting the proposal on the ballot.

Even if Fair and Equal’s proposal doesn't succeed, this effort isn’t going away. Any future measures must offer more protections for faith — not less. 

“Our concern would be that our actions guided by our church teachings might run afoul of new definitions of family, or parents and children, or marriage or men and women,” says Propson. 

“When we are no longer permitted to follow our conscience or follow our faith, what freedom do we have in our work or in our personal lives?”

Twitter: @Ingrid_Jacques