On Indiana and the Potential Dangers of a Michigan RFRA

April 10, 2015

In light of the growing number of state legislatures taking pains to introduce laws written to “protect” religious liberty, you’d think that the idea of safeguarding religious freedom is one that just occurred to the United States. 

But in truth, we don’t need this rash of state-sponsored “religious freedom restoration acts” (RFRAs)—because in America religious freedom has always had the most formidable legal shield possible: the First Amendment.

Somehow, though, we suddenly to seem to have a raft of political leaders who apparently believe that, the U.S. Constitution is inadequate when it comes to protecting religious freedom.

In late March, Indiana became the 20th state to tumble into this trend after Gov. Mike Pence signed the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) into law. Indiana’s RFRA allows any party who feels their “exercise of religion has been substantially burdened” the right to discriminate against those allegedly violating their religious beliefs, regardless of whether or not the government or state is involved.

With the passage of this and other RFRAs, individuals as well as businesses are essentially being empowered to legally discriminate in the name of their faiths—and at the expense of the common good.

The threats that state RFRAs pose to public safety and order are manifold. Under some statutes, a man could deny the validity of domestic violence laws by insisting that his faith requires disciplining his wife, children and home as he sees fit. Landlords could evict tenants. A cop could refuse to protect a synagogue or mosque.

In short, RFRAs amount little more than an attempt to use religion to discriminate.

Little wonder then that Indiana has received intense and unremitting backlash since Gov. Pence signed that state’s RFRA into law. Businesses have threatened to pull out of the state. Anti-discrimination groups are calling for a boycott. And despite Pence's effort to "revise" the law to give himself political cover, the state has become a laughingstock to everyone who believes in real freedom and equality.

Michigan’s political leaders ought to be smart enough not to repeat Indiana’s dumb mistakes.

Unfortunately, it seems that some are determined to do just that.

We see several laws being considered by the Michigan legislature that prioritize individual religious freedom over the common good. One such bill would allow businesses to refuse service to patrons. Another would give faith-based adoption agencies—even those that receive public funding—the right to deny LGBT individuals and same-sex couples opportunities to adopt. Yet another bill would permit medical professionals to refuse healthcare to patients that allegedly affront their beliefs, as well.

Equally as bad is the fact that the state’s civil-rights law, the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, offers no protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Passage of a RFRA, then, paves the way for even more incidents such as the one we saw last month when a doctor in Roseville refused medical care to a newborn girl whose parents are lesbians, claiming that to serve the child directly violate of the physician’s religious beliefs.

That kind of bigotry has no place in our state or anywhere else.

Of course, religious freedom is precious. And that’s precisely why we’re comforted that the First Amendment has always secured our right to believe, or disbelieve, as we see fit. We don’t need any cynical RFRAs for that.

Indiana stepped it in. Leaders in Lansing would be wise not to follow in Pence’s footsteps.

By Sarah Goomar

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