Opponents of bill encouraging dangerous religious exemptions praise Senate leaders

Posted on December 19, 2014

LANSING, Mich. — The Michigan Senate has adjourned, killing legislation that would have allowed individuals to avoid following state and local laws they say interfere with their religious beliefs, earning cheers from opponents of the unnecessary legislation.

HB 5958, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), would have let individuals put their religious beliefs ahead of established state and local laws by letting individuals argue they should be exempt from any law that they say “burdens” their exercise of religion.

The bill would have allowed a man to claim that domestic and child abuse laws don’t apply to him because his religion teaches that a husband has the right to discipline his family as he sees fit. It also would have allowed social workers to refuse to counsel clients based on the social workers’ religious beliefs, or let pharmacists refuse to fill prescriptions for daily birth control pills or life-saving HIV drugs because of their religious beliefs.

In Texas, where a similar law has passed, the law has been used to block public health requirements in kitchens run by religious organizations, and to overturn zoning laws. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a similar bill earlier this year, expressing serious reservations about unintended consequences.

During a hearing earlier this month before the House Judiciary Committee, business leaders, local government officials and others highlighted the potential unintended consequences of RFRA.

“I want to thank Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville for showing a strong leadership position and opposing this legislation,” East Lansing Mayor Nathan Triplett said today. “East Lansing has lead the charge to provide a welcoming environment to all, and this legislation would have stymied our efforts to attract and retain talent. We also would be liable for defending our local ordinances, adding to the city’s legal expenses.”

The Rt. Rev.Todd Ousley, Bishop of The Episcopal Diocese of Eastern Michigan, said RFRA legislation “does nothing to restore religious freedoms which are more than adequately guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, but rather makes possible the denial of fundamental rights under the shameless guise of freedom of religious expression.”

He called the bill “a huge step backward in time to the Jim Crow era, with its potential impact erasing strides made through civil rights acts protecting all citizens regardless of race, color, gender, sexual identity, or sexual expression.”

Noting that the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment addresses both the freedom of speech and the freedom of religion, ACLU of Michigan executive director Kary Moss said that, while individuals retain an unqualified right to believe what they want, they should not be able to use those believes to the detriment of others in society. She said RFRA would undermine that balance, creating a host of unintended consequences.

“Other states with similar legislation have borne witness to the great harm that can be inflicted on third parties when individuals and groups are able to lay claim that any local or state laws burden their exercise of religion,” Moss said. “The First Amendment guarantees this protection. The state must not take it away.”

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