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‘Religious Freedom Restoration’ Bill Flies Out Of House

December 8, 2014

A bill Republicans say would bolster religious freedom and Democrats say would institute a “license to discriminate” gained the approval of the full House Thursday afternoon.

In a straight party-line 59-50 vote, the House approved HB 5958, which would give the “the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (MiRFRA) a place in state law, only hours after a House committee moved the bill to the floor.

Sponsored by House Speaker Jase BOLGER (R-Marshall), the bill’s goal is to limit government’s ability to over-burden a person’s exercise of sincerely held religious beliefs.

“The MiRFRA bill is modeled directly after the 20-year-old federal RFRA as a shield for people who are being forced by government to violate deeply held religious beliefs,” Bolger said earlier Thursday. “It does not provide a shield for people to use as a method to support discrimination against others.”

Bolger originally introduced the bill in November to go along with Rep. Frank FOSTER‘s (R-Petoskey) bill to add sexual orientation to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Bolger said while the path for Foster’s bill had closed, his bill on religious freedom is on a separate track.

That path went through the House Judiciary Committee Thursday morning, where seven Republicans voted to send it to the House floor.

Many religious groups celebrated the committee’s decision Thursday. In a statement, Tom HICKSON, vice president for public policy and advocacy for the Michigan Catholic Conference, called it a “most welcome first step.”

“It is now incumbent upon the full House to pass Speaker Bolger’s bill quickly to allow for the Senate to address this critical policy as soon as possible,” Hickson said in a statement. “A Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act is good for tolerance and diversity, it is good for individual and religious liberties, and it is for the common good of society.”

Opponents, like Equality Michigan’s Emily DIEVENDORF, don’t see the issue the same way.

“Religious leaders and victim advocates agree, if this bill becomes law, it will provide licenses to discriminate to people who decide that anti-discrimination laws, child abuse laws, and domestic violence laws do not apply to them,” Dievendorf said. “No Michigander should be denied access to services by government officials, turned away from a business, or evicted from their home, just because of who they are.”

On the House floor Thursday, Rep. Jeff IRWIN (D-Ann Arbor) said the bill would put government in charge of deciding which religious exercises deserve protections and which don’t.

“That is the height of government power,” Irwin said.

The bill is based on the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was enacted in 1993.

In 1997, however, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the law didn’t apply to the states. Since then, 19 states have enacted a RFRA legislatively to keep the law in place for themselves. In 1997, the House, led by then-Democratic Rep. Kirk PROFIT, received a hearing on a RFRA bill.

At the time, the chair of the Constitutional and Civil Rights Committee, Rep. Ed VAUGHN (D-Detroit) said he felt it important for ministers and religious organizations from around the state to hear about the possible ramifications of the U.S. Supreme Court decision.

Thursday Bolger said, “(The bill) simply restores the long-established standard of review that has worked well for many years and that requires courts to weigh free exercise claims against compelling the state interest standards.”

Irwin noted that conservatives had opposed RFRA pushes in the past because they worried that it could lead to a bevy of lawsuits against the state and substantially cost the state financially.

Irwin also questioned why the bill was being hurried through the Legislature. It was introduced in November. Bolger argued that it hadn’t been rushed.

“1776 to today is hardly a rush,” Bolger said in response.

Rep. Ellen Cogen LIPTON (D-Huntington Woods) also argued against the bill, saying it could protect wild, problematic sincerely held beliefs.

“You’re opening up a very, very dangerous can of worms,” Lipton said.

Supporters countered by mentioning that numerous states and the federal government have their own versions of RFRA.

Democrats offered numerous amendments in committee Thursday, including one that would have required a person’s tithing to his or her church to be considered when determining if the person indeed had a “sincerely held religious belief.” That amendment, like others from Democrats, was defeated.

In a statement after the committee vote, Shelli WEISBERG, the legislative director of the ACLU of Michigan, said the MiRFRA proposal would eliminate the balance between freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

“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,” Weisberg said. “The First Amendment guarantees this protection. The state must not take it away.”

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