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Is Michigan On a Path to Legalized Discrimination?

PHOTO: Republican supporters of the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act say it adds another layer of protection to First Amendment free exercise rights, but opponents say it is a pathway to legalized discrimination. Photo credit: M. Shand.
PHOTO: Republican supporters of the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act say it adds another layer of protection to First Amendment free exercise rights, but opponents say it is a pathway to legalized discrimination. Photo credit: M. Shand.
December 8, 2014

LANSING, Mich. – With just a handful of legislative days left before the end of the year, some civil rights activists fear lawmakers are using the lame duck session to legalize certain forms of discrimination.

Brooke Tucker, a staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, says in failing to increase protections for the state's LGBT community but passing a bill that would allow Michiganians with deeply held religious beliefs to assert them as a legal defense, the state is paving the way for a new rash of legal and ethical red tape.

"We instead have a bill that will further allow individuals and corporations to discriminate not just against the LGBT community but against women, religious minorities and others," Tucker maintains.

The Religious Freedom and Restoration Act passed the Republican-led House on party lines and now moves to the Senate.

The ACLU says the legislation could, for example, allow a landlord who was forced to rent to a single mother to sue on religious grounds, or a baker to refuse to make a cake for a same-sex couple's wedding, or for a pharmacist to refuse to dispense birth control.

Tucker says the potential legal ramifications go even further, placing an additional burden on prosecutors to not just prove a person's guilt, but to also show that the action in question does not violate his or her religious beliefs.

"So if you imagine a person who is being prosecuted for domestic violence, who can now raise religious freedom – 'My religion allows me to beat my wife' – as a defense," Tucker stresses.

House Speaker Jase Bolger, who sponsored the bill, insists it is not a license to discriminate, but simply an attempt to limit government laws that may burden an individual's free exercise of religion.

The House also passed a measure ensuring that faith-based agencies will not be required to perform adoptions if they have religious objections.

Mona Shand, Public News Service - MI