Michigan Advances ‘License To Discriminate’ While LGBT Protections Stagnate

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Michigan State Capitol

Movement is expected this month in Michigan’s state legislature on nondiscrimination protections for the LGBT community, but so far, only a bill that would actually enable anti-LGBT discrimination has advanced.

Three related bills have been proposed:

  • H.B. 5804 would add both sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
  • H.B. 5959 would add only sexual orientation to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, leaving transgender citizens unprotected.
  • H.B. 5958 would establish the “Michigan religious freedom restoration act” (RFRA), which would limit the government’s ability to burden the practice of religion.

House Speaker Jase Bolger (R) introduced the “religious freedom” bill specifically as a “necessary companion” to the LGBT rights bills that had already been proposed. He explicitly believes that a baker, for example, should not be forced to make a cake for a same-sex wedding if it would violate his or her religious beliefs.

The RFRA mirrors similar measures that were proposed and largely defeated over the past year in nearly a dozen states. The most visible of those bills was in Arizona, where national and corporate pressure led Gov. Jan Brewer (R) to veto it.

The text of the RFRA bill dictates that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless it is ” in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest.” Though RFRA-type bills were originally instituted to protect religious individuals and their religious communities, such as Native American tribes that might use peyote in certain ceremonies, these new state level bills are actually designed to protect corporations like the bakeries Bolger mentioned. Michigan state law defines the word “person” as not only individuals, but “bodies politic and corporate,” meaning that RFRA would hypothetically protect a business-owner that felt burdened by nondiscrimination protections.

Passage of RFRA would not only circumvent the public accommodation protections established by either the LGBT or LGB-only bill, but would also supersede LGBT nondiscrimination protections that exist in 36 cities across Michigan — most of which include gender identity protections themselves.

RFRA passed the Judiciary Committee Thursday by a 7-4 party-line vote, but neither version of the nondiscrimination bill has yet been considered by a committee. Rather than serving as a companion, Bolger’s Republican-controlled House could advance RFRA by itself, enabling more discrimination against LGBT people while the needed protections are left behind.


Bolger has apparently declared both civil rights expansion bills “dead” while the pro-RFRA passed in the House Thursday afternoon 59-50.

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