Michigan House approves ‘license to discriminate’ religious freedom bill


Michigan state capitol in Lansing.

LANSING, Mich. — The Republican-led state House approved legislation Thursday that supporters said would protect people’s religious beliefs from government overreach and opponents charged would permit discrimination against gays and others.


Michigan state capitol in Lansing.

On a party-line 59-50 vote, the House sent the GOP-controlled Senate a proposed Michigan version of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It would provide a claim or defense to people who say their exercise of religion has been substantially burdened by the government. Majority Republicans also passed bills letting faith-based agencies refuse to participate in adoptions that violate their beliefs.

GOP House Speaker Jase Bolger of Marshall, the sponsor of the Michigan version of the federal law, introduced it last month to coincide with a GOP bill that would amend the state’s civil rights act to bar discrimination based on sexual orientation. But that measure is dead because Republicans and Democrats disagree on specifically banning discrimination against transgender residents.

“This bill should remain on this separate path because it is worth pursuing,” Bolger said, saying the federal law doesn’t apply to government action at the state or local level.

The measure would create no new religious rights, he said, and “simply restores the long-established standard of review that has worked well for many years” in which courts weigh religious liberty against government’s interests.

But Rep. Jeff Irwin, an Ann Arbor Democrat, warned it would “open the door to discrimination and the types of behavior that otherwise violates the laws of the state of Michigan.”

He said while legislators may think the bill is about safeguarding a baker from having to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple, it’s “much broader.” Democrats warned that government workers with sincere religious beliefs could be allowed to show bias against someone from another faith, mentioning that pharmacists could deny birth control to women.

Republicans denied that the legislation would provide a “license to discriminate” and that critics’ hypotheticals were far-fetched or had been dismissed by judges in real-life cases.

At least 19 states have approved laws mirroring the federal law, which prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion for anything other than a compelling government interest pursued in the least restrictive way.

Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, said the majority GOP caucus hadn’t yet discussed the religious freedom or anti-discrimination bills.

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Legislators have two weeks left to enact legislation before bills die and must be reintroduced in the next two-year session.

The adoption bills also were passed along party lines. Advocates say they would codify existing practice and preemptively protect religious child-placing organizations from repercussions if Michigan ever legalizes gay marriage or civil unions. Critics say the bills would authorize discrimination by agencies receiving state funding for child placements.

On Wednesday, lawmakers adjourned a historic legislative hearing without voting on a measure that would update the state’s anti-discrimination law to include protections for LGBT citizens.

Associated Press contributed to this report.

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