A new bill called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) has passed through the Michigan House of Representatives, prohibiting the government from intervening if health care workers, such as EMTs and pharmacists, and other businesspeople refuse service on the grounds of protecting personal religious beliefs.
Though the bill has yet to make its way to the state Senate, its 59-50 passage in the House has already caused controversy, particularly among opponents who claim the bill is merely a veiled attempt at legalizing discrimination. Supporters, meanwhile, point to a waning set of religious freedoms in public life as the cause for the bill. People of specific religious backgrounds shouldn’t have to practice their beliefs solely in private, some have asserted.
“I support individual liberty and I support religious freedom,” said House Speaker Jase Bolger (R) in a Dec. 4 press statement. “I have been horrified as some have claimed that a person’s faith should only be practiced while hiding in their home or in their church.”
Michigan’s RFRA is modeled after a federal law, which the Supreme Court has ruled does not apply to states. Under both forms of the law, an individual’s claim would have to pass a two-part balancing test in order to meet the legal standards. First, the individual would have to prove the request violated his or her sincerely held religious beliefs, and the government would then have to prove the law achieved its policy goal through the least restrictive means possible.
While the proponents of the bill cite less-offensive cases, such as Jewish butchers refusing to handle non-kosher meat or Christian pastors prohibited from donating to local homeless populations due to food safety rules, others point to subtler — and more dangerous — possible uses. These include pharmacists refusing to fill HIV prescriptions, or EMTs denying a gay person the right to live, said an ACLU of Michigan attorney to MLive.
“I should not be forced to follow the religion of my pharmacist,” state Rep. Vicki Barnett (D) said in a floor speech prior to the House’s vote.
However, some legal experts discredit the idea that extreme cases will ever survive in court. Little, if any, precedence exists to suggest a devout Christian interested in saving people’s lives will stop short if he or she finds out the victim is homosexual, says future Republican Speaker Kevin Cotter, who supports the bill. “The ability to bring a case is a right that we all enjoy,” Cotter said. “But there is a difference between filing a case and winning a case.”
A form of the RFRA was already vetoed in Arizona this past February, as a Republican-led legislature passed the bill only for it to get shot down by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. The bill made similar claims about religious freedom in that it allowed individuals the right to refuse service based on conflicting beliefs with homosexuality. LGBT activists argued the bill unfairly targeted the gay and lesbian population and that the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion did not apply.
Arizona Sen. John McCain wrote to Brewer following her veto, after a separate statement he co-wrote with Sen. Jeff Flake, urging her to reject the bill because of the potential for negative economic impact in the state. “I hope that we can now move on from this controversy,” he wrote, “and assure the American people that everyone is welcome to live, work and enjoy our beautiful state of Arizona.”
The Michigan House and Senate are expected to hold their final session day of the year on Dec. 18.