State Civil Rights Amendment Dead, Says Speaker

Religious Protection Bill Advances, Would Protect Right To Discriminate

By Todd Heywood

Updated at 10:20 a.m. Dec. 5, 2014

At the end of the day Dec. 4, the Michigan House passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act with a vote of 59-50, falling directly on party lines. The bill now moves to the state Senate for approval.

LANSING - House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) says legislation to amend Michigan's civil rights act to include protections for the LGBT community is dead.

"The Speaker and I have both been quoted saying the Elliott-Larsen amendment bill will not be voted on this year because there isn't enough support to get the bill out of committee," says Bolger's spokesman Ari Adler.

The bills were given a hearing Wednesday before the House Commerce Committee. The Committee heard testimony for an hour and a half, then adjourned without voting either of two bills to amend the civil rights act to the floor for a vote. One bill would be fully inclusive of the LGBT community, while a second, promoted by Bolger would have excluded gender identity and expression from protections. Bolger claims transgender people are protected from discrimination under federal court rulings - something attorney Jay Kaplan of the ACLU of Michigan has said is untrue.

Meanwhile, a second bill to create a Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act - which would allow people to discriminate based on "sincerely held religious beliefs" - was voted out of the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday and is on the way to the House floor for a full vote.

"We are extremely disappointed by both the House Judiciary committee's action and the Speaker's statement. Speaker Bolger has stated on numerous occasions that he thinks LGBT discrimination is wrong and he has it within his power and authority as Speaker to advance the ELCRA bill to the full House for a vote. We urge him to do so, consistent with his stated beliefs. It's the right thing to do for Michigan," said ACLU Attorney Jay Kaplan.

Bolger held a press conference a couple of weeks ago to announce the Religious Freedom legislation in conjunction with a non-inclusive Elliott-Larsen amendment bill. He said the Religious Freedom legislation was designed to balance rights in Michigan. He declined at the time to tie bar the legislation to Elliott-Larsen. Tie barring is a legislative move that requires two or more bills to be passed together in order for one or the other to advance.

"At no time has the Speaker talked about tying the bills together," said Adler. "He stated today in committee that he is saddened that the path for Elliott-Larsen was closed yesterday but that MiRFRA should continue on its separate path as it, too, is important."

Responding to MiRFRA moving out of the House Judiciary Committee, Kaplan said the bill is both unnecessary and very dangerous."Religious freedom is fundamental and is protected by both our U.S. and state constitutions. However, that religious freedom does not give a person the right to justify harming others. This broadly and poorly written law allows individuals to use their religious beliefs as an excuse to discriminate and to ignore laws that the rest of us follow," stressed Kaplan. "This measure would open a Pandora's Box of lawsuits challenging any law, policy, government decision or regulation that an individual believes conflicts with their religious exercise."

Equality Michigan Executive Director Emily Dievendorf talked about how if MiRFRA were to become law it could deny Michiganders access to services by government officials, people could be turned away from a business or evicted from their home simply because of who they are. "House Bill 5959, the so-called 'Religious Freedom Restoration Act,' is unnecessary, and Michigan citizens don't want to see it become a reality. Religious leaders and victim advocates agree: if this bill becomes law, it will provide licenses to discriminate to people who decide that anti-discrimination laws, child abuse laws and domestic violence laws do not apply to them."

"Rep. Kevin Cotter has shown his true colors today and foreshadowed the type of behavior we can expect from his tenure as Speaker of the Michigan House," said Lonnie Scott, executive director of Progress Michigan. "Michigan residents have been clear that they want equality for everyone in our state and instead Republicans are moving to enshrine discrimination into state law." This was Cotter's first act after being elected as the new House Speaker.

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