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Michigan religious freedom bill gets hearing as court hears gay marriage arguments

Apr 28, 2015

On the same day the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over same-sex marriage, state lawmakers took testimony on a bill that could shape how some businesses react to the court’s ruling.

State Sen. Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, introduced the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). He says Senate Bill 4 would simply protect religious practices against government interference.

Credit Flickr user Praveen / flickr http://michrad.io/1LXrdJM

  “Michigan RFRA is not a license to discriminate,” he told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “In fact, it is far from a license to do anything other than have the basis to defend oneself against government action interfering with one’s closely held religious beliefs.”

Shirkey admits people have tried to use similar laws to discriminate. But he says those attempts never hold up in court.

“The improper use of RFRA – and it can be improperly used – as a grounds to discriminate has a clear and undeniable history. In over 20 years of federal and many states’ experience with RFRA laws, in exactly 100 percent of the cases where RFRA was used to defend an individual’s effort to discriminate it has failed without exception.”

The bill is similar to legislation that recently sparked heated controversy in Indiana. A number of businesses and local chambers of commerce in Michigan worry the same could happen here. They wrote letters to Michigan lawmakers Tuesday urging them not to adopt the legislation.

State Sen. Steve Bieda, D-Warren,  is the top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee. He says it’s unwise to take up the bill – especially after the backlash in Indiana.

“The fact that we’re taking it up is kind of akin to somebody that watches somebody pick up a live wire and then they get fried. And then, after that person drops dead into a burnt crisp, they decide to do the same thing. It wouldn’t make sense for us to do this,” Bieda said before the hearing.

There were plenty of empty seats in what was expected to be a packed committee room. Some speculated many people rallying outside the U.S. Supreme Court would have otherwise been in Lansing.

Jami Contreras of Oak Park says she and her wife Krista decided against traveling to Washington so they could share their story.

“Unfortunately we can’t be in D.C. with friends in celebrating progress for the country,” she said. “Instead, we’re here making sure our state doesn’t move backwards.”

The Contreras family was recently in the news when a metro Detroit pediatrician refused to treat their six-day-old daughter because they are a same-sex couple, citing religious beliefs. They fear the bill would give businesses more power to discriminate against families like theirs.

“We are not asking for special treatment,” said Krista Contreras. “Not at all. We are simply asking to let our daughter grow up in a state that respects and protects her rights just as much as everyone else’s.”

It appears the Michigan RFRA may already be stalled. Gov. Rick Snyder has vowed to veto the bill if it reaches his desk without including LGBT civil rights protections. And Sen. Jones says Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof, R-West Olive, has asked him not to take a committee vote on the bill.

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