Michigan’s ‘Religious Freedom Restoration Act’

A Michigan bill introduced by a right-wing lawmaker in 2014 stirred fears of being part of the trend of states opening the door to discrimination based on “religious freedom” claims. But a ruling by the state Supreme Court in July 2022 could shut down that threat for the time being.

First passed by the state House in December 2014, House Bill 5958 — a.k.a. the “Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act” (RFRA) — allowed businesses and service providers to refuse to help customers based on their religious beliefs.

“The individual must show they have a sincerely held religious belief that has been substantially burdened,” GOP House Speaker Jase Bolger, who sponsored the bill, said at the time. “This bill is not a license to discriminate; the courts have already demonstrated for decades that wild claims will not be supported.”

But contrary to Bolger’s claims, the bill’s impact was far-reaching, according to Charlie Langton, a legal analyst for WWJ-TV in Detroit.

“For example, a Christian doctor who does not believe in a gay lifestyle would not have to treat a gay patient,” Langton said. “Or perhaps, a Jewish butcher would not have to handle non-Kosher meat.”

However, the bill did not pass in the state Senate. In June 2015, then-Gov. Rick Snyder did sign into law separate legislation allowing “faith-based” adoption agencies to cite their beliefs as a reason to turn away prospective clients.

The bill was a version of the federal RFRA, introduced concurrently in the House of Representatives by Democratic Rep. Chuck Schumer and in the Senate by Sen. Joe Kennedy on March 11 1993. It was signed into law by then-President Bill Clinton that November. As the New York Times reported at the time, the bill attracted support from a coalition of religious groups:

The coalition included the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, the National Council of Churches, the American Jewish Congress, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the Mormon Church, the Traditional Values Coalition and the American Civil Liberties Union.

In June 1997, the Supreme Court struck down the federal RFRA in a 6-3 decision; the high court found that the law exceeded Congress’ powers and could not be applied to states. In the wake of that decision, 21 states have enacted their own versions of the law.

On July 28 2022, however, the Michigan Supreme Court found in a 5-2 decision that “religious freedom” may not be used as the basis to discriminate against LGBTQ patrons; the state court’s decision thus expanded discrimination statutes to include sexual orientation.

Justice Elizabeth Clement “Discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation necessarily constitutes discrimination because of sex,” thus violating the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, passed in 1976.

The Michigan Advance reported that while celebrating the court’s decision, state Attorney General Dana Nessel called for an amendment to the state constitution specifically protecting LGBTQ Michiganders against discrimination.

“We should get ready for this for 2024, because I do see it on the horizon and we have to be proactive about it,” she said. “I think that voters will do the right thing. And I think that voters will want to see these protections stay in place, and I remain hopeful that in the future we will keep these protections and they’ll just be part of our everyday life.”

Update 7/29/2022, 1:05 a.m. PST: This article has been updated. You can review the original here. — ag