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LANSING — The last weeks of any legislative session are often full of lawmaking chicanery, and this session is no different. As the so-called lame duck session was gaveling in, the Michigan LGBT community believed that they would finally, for the first time since 1981, have civil rights protections added to the state law known as the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. Now, with just over a week left in the session, amending the state’s civil rights law is off the table, and in its place is a legislative sleight of hand — civil rights protections based on “religious freedom.”
So what is religious freedom? According to House Bill 5958, “‘Exercise of religion’ means the practice or observance of religion, including an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.” The legislation was introduced by Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) to “balance” the civil rights of religious people in Michigan and the civil rights of the LGBT community.
At the same press conference in early November, Frank Foster, a Republican who lost his bid for re-election over his support for LGBT equality, announced he was introducing a bill designed to extend civil rights to lesbians, gays and bisexuals — while excluding the transgender community. Foster’s bill, along with a comprehensive and inclusive bill introduced earlier in session by Sam Singh (D-East Lansing), received a hearing before the House Commerce Committee.
That hearing droned on for over an hour and a half, featuring five people testifying for the need for the legislation, and at least two who opposed the bill. Those speaking on behalf of the Singh bill included Jay Kaplan and Kary Moss of the ACLU of Michigan, Allan Gilmour, the former president of Wayne State University, vice chair of Ford Motor Co. and an out gay man with extensive business leadership experience in southeast Michigan, and other business owners. No transgender people were allowed to testify — despite the fact they were at the center of the controversy over an inclusive bill.
The Commerce Committee adjourned without a vote, and Speaker Bolger declared amending the state’s civil rights act dead. But Bolger’s religious freedom bill got a hearing two days later in the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by Speaker-elect Kevin Cotter, a tea party aligned Republican who counts among his allies Rep.-elect Gary Glenn, the former head of the American Family Association of Michigan. Glenn is part of a trio of extreme right wing politicos to be sworn in for two year terms on Jan. 1. The trio includes Glenn, Todd Courser and Cindy Gamrat.
Bolger’s team has blamed “leftists” for the failure to amend the civil rights act — but BTL has reported previously that is not really the case. Gender identity and expression were not issues on the table or horizon for the Speaker and his cohorts this past spring when talk of amending Elliott-Larsen ramped up. But then, Jim Murray, president of AT&T Michigan, started going “off script” from the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition and encouraged lawmakers to support legislation that expanded civil rights protections only to the LGB community while dropping the T community. Murray himself has referred to being attacked by “leftists” over this move. He removed himself from participation in the workforce coalition after his own employer, AT&T, announced it would only support a fully inclusive bill.
No Gay Cakes
When Bolger announced the religious freedom bill — officially known as the Michigan Restoration of Religious Freedom (MiRFRA) — he said that businesses should not refuse to hire LGBT people, but that they should be able to refuse to bake a cake for a gay wedding. That was, he said, religious freedom and freedom of conscience.
The legislation however is much broader than simply refusing to bake a cake. Under this law, a baker who participates in Christian Identity, a religious system used by extreme racists to support their white supremacy, could refuse to bake a cake for an interracial couple’s wedding. A paramedic could refuse to provide emergency medical care for a transgender person. And because Rep. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) attempted to amend the bill on the House floor to include a provision exempting genital mutilation from religious freedom protections — and the GOP rejected that amendment — if this bill becomes law, a young woman can have her clitoris cut off in the name of “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
This is the same legislative language that forced Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer to veto a similar bill in that state. And Kansas, despite having lost in the legislature, is preparing to bring a new version of the bill in that state. The Kansas Senate stopped the bill in the prairie state this year.
And in Michigan, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville (R-Monroe) appears to be the barrier on this legislation in the super majority controlled state senate. In a Nov. 12 story in the subscription-only capitol newsletter Gongwer, Amber McCann — who did not return multiple calls from Between The Lines — said the leader had no personal “desire or need” for a broad religious exemption. He had earlier told Gongwer himself that he would have to scrutinize any bills sent over with such exemptions because he had heard concerns the language could be misused.
Emily Dievendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan, is holding out hope that Richardville will be the dike that holds back the religious exemption wave. She worked closely with the Monroe Republican while she was on the staff of former State Rep. Andy Coulouris.
“Senator Richardville is a faithful Catholic who believes strongly in religious freedoms as do most Michiganders — Democratic or Republican, gay or straight,” Dievendorf said in a text message Monday. “Richardville’s office has already acknowledged that additional religious protection is unnecessary to protect those freedoms. Michigan citizens agree that our state and U.S. Constitution have us covered and a RFRA would only open the door to harm against our most vulnerable.”
Meanwhile, with amending the civil rights act essentially a dead deal in the state legislature this session, Freedom Michigan’s expenditures on a significant ground force of 24 field organizers is done. Freedom Michigan was a coalition of national LGBT organizations that formed to educate the public. On Sunday, those field organizers were all laid off. The money to fund those organizers was provided by HRC in Washington D.C. To top it off, with the state house likely to become significantly more conservative in the next legislative session, MiRFRA will likely be on the agenda — and Richardville will be gone from the Senate, having fallen to term limits. That is going to put Michigan in the legislative crosshairs, and the likelihood of passage of MiRFRA is nearly certain. The question is, can the LGBT and ally community build the opposition infrastructure to encourage Gov. Rick Snyder enough to prevent him from signing such legislation into law?