(As seen on WZZM TV 13) While Indiana Gov. Mike Pence faces intense backlash from the business community and others across the country following his signing of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, many businesses and individuals in Michigan hope Mitten state legislators are paying attention.
“I just hope our lawmakers in Lansing are watching what is happening in Indiana,” said Rick Baker, president and CEO of Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
Although Michigan failed to pass a similar RFRA bill in December, the bill was reintroduced in the Senate in January and is making its way through the legislative process.
Gov. Rick Snyder said last week he would veto any RFRA legislation that comes as a standalone bill, preferring that any such legislation be paired with expansion of the state’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act. Snyder said he strongly supports religious freedom but strongly opposes discrimination of any kind.
Baker pointed out that talent attraction is a key focus for the state’s business community to compete in a global environment, and the state needs to send a clear image of being “open, inclusive and welcoming” to all.
He noted that Michigan has made great strides to create a more competitive environment for businesses.
He said efforts to project a positive image through its Pure Michigan campaign and important policy changes have made the state more competitive “to attract and retain and grow businesses in our region.”
“We hope they (legislators) are paying attention to the impact that Indiana’s decision is having on their state and really take that into consideration and listen to us when we talk about the impact of their decisions,” Baker said.
He noted businesses in Michigan, in general, do not want to discriminate and support a “welcome to all” environment.
“I think for the general business community, it does not want to be one that is discriminating against people in our community or looking to be one that is viewed as discriminating,” he said. “It wants to be one that is, on the other hand, very inclusive, welcoming and open for its customers, employees and for visitors in our region.
“We want to make sure we are projecting a very positive image of who we are in the state.”
Baker noted in December the Grand Rapids Chamber was supportive of changes to the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act that would have added protections for sexuality and gender identity — a bill that did not pass.
Michigan, like Indiana, does not have civil rights protections that include sexual orientation and gender identity, which means businesses can, in fact, discriminate against LGBT people.
ACLU attorney Jay Kaplan pointed to a situation recently near Detroit where a pediatrician refused to examine an infant because she had lesbian mothers.
“In Michigan, we don’t have protections for LGBT people statewide so, in general, it is legal to be discriminated against,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan noted a RFRA law would further codify that kind of discrimination in the state.
Some city governments and townships have passed local ordinances that include sexual orientation and gender identity, but Kaplan said a RFRA law could jeopardize the intent of those ordinances.
“We do have local communities that have local human rights ordinances,” he said. “Let’s say you have a (same sex) couple that is turned away by a bakery that says ‘we won’t serve you’ and they file a complaint with the city legal department. That baker could use as a defense this RFRA because they have a particular religious belief.”
He noted it’s not just the LGBT community that should be worried about these types of laws.
“Let’s say it’s a couple who wants to go to a B&B who isn’t married, and an owner refuses to allow them based on their marital status,” he said.
While there is no state or federal law protecting sexual orientation or gender identity, Kaplan pointed out there is a very powerful law protecting religious freedom: the First Amendment of the Constitution.
“The First Amendment in the Constitution is the strongest protection, and we’ve had it for more than 200 years,” he said. “An individual always has the right to hold a particular religious belief, and there is nothing that the government can ever do to change someone’s belief about something based in religion, but we’ve never said someone’s religious belief can be used to harm other people in non-religious activity.”
Kaplan said lawsuits would be the likely result of the passage of the RFRA bill in Michigan — as well as a tremendous backlash. He said he hopes the Indiana law is making people in Michigan more aware of the consequences these types of laws can produce.