It’s not just wedding cakes, how RFRA will harm our communities and economy

Roland Leggett • Detroit

unnamed-1Detroit resident Roland Leggett has spent most of his life in the state of Michigan, but he’s growing increasingly concerned with a new bill making its way through the state legislature—the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA)—because of the huge unintended consequences that this bill could have on our communities and state economy.

If passed into law, this bill could give individuals and businesses the ability to discriminate against others—including gay and transgender Michiganders—in the name of religious freedom.

As an African American and a married gay man, Leggett is particularly concerned what sort of impact this law could have on his family should it advance in the Michigan Legislature.

“Personally I’m very concerned about protecting my own family. I’m married and we have two children, an 11 year old and a 6 year old… All families deserve the peace of mind of knowing that their family is deserving of dignity and respect, that they will receive the same access to healthcare, the same access to services and the same access to education.”

“But it’s a values piece for me. Even if I didn’t have a family, I believe everyone deserves a fair shake and a fair shot and part of that is making sure everyone has to play by the same rules and has the same opportunities.”

RolandandMatthew2This is why Roland, like a growing number of Michiganders, was concerned when this law was introduced in the Michigan Legislature.

“I was disappointed. There is a real cynicism with politicians related to this issue. A lot of people are concerned with scoring political points and not the real life consequences of what these kinds of laws will have on families.”

“It says to me that the legislature isn’t interested in moving the state forward and doing everything it can do to make the state better for Michigan residents. Michigan needs to attract top talent and ensure that the talent that we do have stays here in the state—and people who are in vulnerable situations need to know that the legislature has their best interests at heart.”

Roland knows that laws like RFRA can easily be used and abused to legalize discrimination. He knows this because instances have already occurred in the state of Michigan where some businesses have tried to deny services to some, in the name of so-called religious freedom.

“There was a lawsuit a few years ago where a school counselor did not want to provide services [to a gay student] because of strongly held religious beliefs. We need to have a conversation about whether a health provider should have the ability to deny access based on their religious beliefs. It’s just tremendously dangerous.

When lawmakers pass these laws they think, oh we don’t want a Christian baker to have to make a wedding cake for a gay couple’s wedding, but this is really about vital services that LGBT people need and whether or not they deserve to have these services be called into question because someone claims they have a strongly held religious belief.”

While supporters of RFRA try to portray this issue as if it is all about bakers and wedding cakes, Roland understands that the far reaching consequences of this law are great–and could lead to discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations for services like healthcare and education, services all people need, no matter their sexual orientation or gender identity. If RFRA passes, Roland argues that it will embolden those who seek to discriminate against others, by allowing them to use religion as an excuse.

“People might perceive this law as a license to discriminate. One of the challenges is that most people [wrongfully] think that LGBT people are already protected under civil rights law. So laws like a RFRA law undermine the lack of protection and it emboldens people to do harm. Absolutely this law is very dangerous. At the end of the day these laws are written in such an ambiguous way, so there’s many ways this law could be used, not just against a lesbian or a gay person, but any number of vulnerable groups and minority groups. There are just so many unintended consequences. This is not about wedding cakes, this is about very, very serious services and resources that residents need that could be called into question.”

ARolandLeggettandPastorBodes a man of faith himself, Roland knows that a majority of the faithful in Michigan do not want, nor need a license to discriminate in order to carry out their religious beliefs. Religious freedom is one of our most fundamental rights as Americans, but that right should in no way be used as a tool or a weapon to cause harm to others.

“In this country, we have a long history of religion being used to discriminate against people, that’s just a fact. That does not mean that the majority of people of faith in this country want to discriminate. My husband is a Lutheran pastor so I certainly have some insight about this, but I don’t think businesses have a right to refuse service to someone based on a religious belief.

I was raised in a Christian household, but I have an understanding that people of other faiths have a right to practice their religion. And a person from another religion who is living their life does not in any way impede on my life. That’s the core of what freedom of religion is about, it’s not about your ability to discriminate against other people or deny families vital services like healthcare or education or deny employment to someone.”

Michigan need not look much further than to our neighbors in Indiana who recently passed a “license to discriminate” RFRA law, and experienced a nationwide backlash that resulted in major corporations and businesses pulling millions of dollars in investment and jobs out of the state. Roland argues that Michigan should learn from the experience of Indiana if our state does not want to face the same harsh economic consequences that could result if we move forward with this discriminatory bill.

“Businesses themselves are saying if you pass this, it’s going to have a really bad impact on our bottom line, so there’s no question that if this law passes it’s going to be a really challenging situation for the state.

As we saw in Indiana, Businesses pulled out of the state, or changed their plans after that law was passed. When a multimillion-dollar company decides to open a plant or to hire X amount of people, that’s a planning process that takes years. So for something to get passed and within a week, a business to scrap that, to say we’re going to scrap years of work and millions of dollars, that’s a big, big, big deal. I can only imagine what that could mean for Michigan because we already have a vulnerable economy.”

Roland points to the automotive industry, the backbone of Michigan’s economy, as a leader in extending non-discrimination protections to the LGBT community. Roland argues that if Michigan moves forward with this law, it would put state law at odds with the well-established policies of Michigan’s leading businesses.

“The automotive industry were some of the first Fortune 500 companies to have non-discrimination policies, they have a history and a legacy of supporting the LGBT community. So I could only imagine what they would do if the state became a more hostile place for their workers.”

Knowing all the unintended consequences that could result should Michigan move forward with this ill-conceived law, it’s hard to understand what our legislature is thinking by considering such a dangerous bill. As Roland explains, “So many people think this issue is just about wedding cakes, but it’s so much bigger than that.”