Image: Scott Olson/Getty
By Emma Margolin
Michigan’s Republican-controlled House of Representatives has passed a controversial religious freedom bill, teeing up what civil liberties advocates fear will be another wave of GOP-backed legislation that could cripple LGBT rights.
The bill, HB 5958, zipped through the House Judiciary Committee Thursday morning and then the full chamber on a 59-50 party-line vote – all in one day. It now heads to the Republican-controlled state Senate for consideration, and then to the desk of Republican Gov. Rick Snyder.
Also known as the “Religious Freedom and Restoration Act” (RFRA,) HB 5958 is modeled after a federal law at issue in the Supreme Court’s notorious Hobby Lobby ruling. That decision determined that closely held corporations, like the evangelical-owned craft chain, wouldn’t have to cover the cost of contraception for their employees based on the owners’ sincerely held religious objections. Nineteen states have adopted RFRA laws that mirror the federal measure, which the high court determined in 1997 did not apply to the states.
Like the federal RFRA, Michigan’s bill protects people from laws that substantially burden their sincerely held religious beliefs, unless the government can prove that the offending law serves a compelling interest and accomplishes that goal using the least restrictive means possible. President Bill Clinton signed RFRA into law in 1993 as a protective measure for religious minorities, something Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger – HB 5958’s sponsor – now points to in the face of accusations that his bill is extreme.
“Do you think that Bill Clinton and Ted Kennedy were extremists?” Bolger said in an interview with msnbc. “We modeled [this bill] directly after what they did. I’m baffled to hear that what we’re doing is out of line.”
But opponents say otherwise. While Bolger insists the bill is meant to protect, say, the Muslim butcher who wants to prepare food in line with halal practices, or the Jewish mother who doesn’t want an autopsy performed on her son, civil liberties advocates warn it could be used as a defense for the landlord who wants to evict a gay tenant, or the pharmacist who doesn’t want to provide birth control, all because of sincerely held religious beliefs.
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