Get the facts: Understanding Michigan RFRA

Categories: In Case You Missed It,Initiatives

Since the MiRFRA passed last week, there have been plenty of rumors, half-truths
and exaggerated claims, and we are going
to disprove those accusations.

In fact, MiRFRA is merely a protection for people who are forced by government to violate deeply held religious beliefs. It does not provide a legal sword for people to use as a method to discriminate.

Speculators continue making wild claims about how the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act (MiRFRA) will allegedly undermine state laws protecting public health and safety, prohibiting discrimination and providing tax revenue for government programs. Such claims have similarly been made with respect to the federal RFRA, and all of the claims have been routinely rejected by federal courts. The federal RFRA does not apply to state and local governments, and that is why MiRFRA is needed today.

Accusation: Over the weekend, Republicans in the Michigan House passed a “license to discriminate” bill that would give just about anyone the right to refuse service to LGBT people if it conflicted with their religious beliefs.

REALITY. The MiRFRA, like its federal counterpart, provides no new rights to people of faith to refuse service to LGBT people.

Accusation: The broadly written Religious Freedom Restoration Act would allow, for example, an EMT to refuse emergency treatment to a gay person or a pharmacist to refuse to refill HIV medication, because God decreed gays and lesbians should be put to death.

REALITY. There are no nuances with regards to emergency medical services. There is a federal law called EMTALA that ensures access to emergency medical services (e.g. a hospital must provide emergency care to anybody who shows up in the ER, regardless of ability to pay). Thus, even if a state RFRA was wrongly interpreted to allow the refusal of emergency care, it would nevertheless be preempted by EMTALA.
What’s more, EMTALA has coexisted with RFRA without issue since 1993 and has never be defeated by any religious objection. The MiRFRA, like its federal counterpart, is aimed at government action. State and local governments always have a compelling interest in ensuring that laws and ordinances protecting public health and safety are rigorously enforced, and MiRFRA reinforces this interest.

Accusation: The measure is similar to one in Arizona that even right-wing governor Jan Brewer thought went too far and vetoed.

REALITY. The MiRFRA is patterned specifically on the federal RFRA as applied by the federal courts. Arizona’s bill went beyond the federal RFRA and further than Rep. Profit’s RFRA bill did in 1997.

Accusation: A widely circulated article referenced that the act is so broad it would let a Catholic high school refuse to hire a Muslim janitor, and a DMV clerk deny a new driver’s license to someone who is divorced.

REALITY. The MiRFRA requires that a person or school show that a sincerely held religious belief clashes with a particular government action. While a private catholic high school could, for example, insist that its teachers be trained in teaching the church’s religious tenants, there is nothing in MiRFRA to suggest that the high school could refuse to hire a person to be a janitor solely because the person practices the Muslim faith. Similar claims have been tried with federal and state RFRAs, and courts have routinely rejected them.
In regards to the DMV accusation, the federal act – and Michigan’s – would not protect the DMV employee because if it did, the employee’s action would result in government-sanctioned religious discrimination against the license applicant, which is prohibited under the Equal Protection Clause. Courts have consistently held that the government has a compelling interest in preventing constitutional violations and therefore, RFRA could never be used in a way that would result in such a violation.

Accusation: “The idea that we need to ‘restore’ religious freedom — rights that are already enshrined in the U.S. Constitution — is a farce created by conservative lawmakers for the sole purpose of appeasing their far-right donors and the religious right,” said Lonnie Scott of Progress Michigan.

REALITY. The U.S. Supreme Court severely restricted the scope of religious freedom under the federal Constitution in its Employment Division v Smith, 492 US 872 (1990) case. The MiRFRA, like the federal RFRA, would simply put in statute the same standard that existed in the federal Constitution for the first 190+ years of the country’s existence.
Not only does the First Amendment’s Free Press clause provide protections for the press, but we also have the Freedom of Information Act and the Open Meetings Act, which help ensure that the freedom of the press is accepted, not just tolerated.

Accusation: In a supreme bit of irony, the Michigan House over the weekend failed to pass a non-discrimination bill that protects the LGBT community.

REALITY. The REAL ‘supreme bit of irony’ is that it is the ACLU, which supported the federal RFRA when it was enacted in 1993, it is the ACLU which helped to draft the ‘Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Person Act’ (which applies the RFRA standard to state prisons), and it is the ACLU that has sued federal, state, and local governments throughout the country under federal and state RFRAs.
Currently, the ACLU is using RFRA to sue the United States Army regarding a Sikh man’s Free Exercise rights; if it is ok for the ACLU to use RFRA, why can’t ordinary citizens?