Michigan Religious Freedom as an excuse for ambiguous discrimination

Rep. Jase Bolger (R) source: http://www.freep.com

House Bill no. 5958, also known as “Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” passed the house on December 4th, 2014. Introduced by Representative Jase Bolger (R) and still in the process of being passed by the Senate as well as signed by Governor Snyder, this bill is known to all my friends as the bill that allows EMTs to refuse service to LGBTQ people. I decided to read the bill:

 “Exercise of religion” means the practice or observance of religion, including an act or refusal to act, that is substantially motivated by a sincerely held religious belief, whether or not compelled by or central to a system of religious belief.

There’s the kicker: “including an act or refusal to act.” So I ask myself, what were Rep. Bolger’s intentions in proposing such ambiguous discrimination into law? Although Bolger claims that this is not mean to permit discrimination, he cites possible protections to religious acts as a baker refusing to make a cake for a same-sex wedding. While I think an easy solution would be for that same-sex couple to choose to support a baker that values their lives as whole and moral human beings, I still see the refusal to service based on sexual orientation as an act of discrimination.

Bolger uses phrases like, “practice their faith in peace,”2 to lie to the public about the extent of harm this bill may allow. On top of this manipulation, HB-5958 was passed in the house on the corpse of the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act amendment, which would have expanded civil rights acts to those in the LGBTQ community. While I live in the almost-utopia that is Ann Arbor, I can’t ignore the fact that Michigan ended up 5th in the Rolling Stone’s “The 5 Worst States for LGBT People.”

This article highlights the high rates of hate crime in Michigan towards, in particular, transgender women of color as one reason for Michigan landing on their list. It claims Detroit is the most dangerous city for gay travelers. Michigan bans adoption for LGBTQ families, it bans surrogacy, and it has no statewide protections for LGBTQ people in employment or housing. The end of the article eludes to hope in the Elliot Larson Act amendment—which I must remind you died in the house the 3rd of December. Michigan made the list totally independent of the RFRA bill that was passed on the 4th.

Let’s backtrack, though. What do I mean when I say, “the extent of harm this bill may allow?” This bill would in fact allow people on the basis of religious freedom to discriminate against LGBTQ people. The age-old question still remains in my head, how will they know if we’re LGBTQ people?

It makes sense for a baker to be able to pinpoint not wanting to service two women getting married because if two women are getting married they are clearly in a queer relationship. But, what happens when I call an ambulance and they pick me up? Will they smell the queerness on my skin? Will they check my laptop for a rainbow sticker? Will they look me up on facebook and see if I’m too close in pictures with too many women? How will these religious freedom junkies know that I am “against” their religion?

They won’t know for me. I pass incredibly easily. When I come out of the closet, I get men refusing to believe me and women telling me well you don’t look like a lesbian…what does a lesbian look like? How will they know?

The truth about discrimination is that it isn’t truly based on membership in a particular group. Discrimination is based on stereotypes, being able to pinpoint “tells” that tag certain people as a member of the LGBTQ community. The people refused for service by an EMT will be the same transgender women of color who face high rates of crime all across Michigan, the same gay boys who were bullied for being gay before they knew what gay meant, and people all across the state that ‘come off as gay’ without true membership in our community.

This is the meaning of discrimination. These are the consequences of exercising religion by acting or refusing to act. EMTs will not know if they will be discriminating against the LGBTQ population because no one knows how to correctly identify LGBTQ people. Shall we tag ourselves with pink triangles? This is the harm of the “Michigan religious freedom restoration act.” It must not pass the Senate. It must not be signed by Governor Snyder. I know I won’t be the first LGBTQ person from Michigan to leave if our rights fall to this level of disgrace. Only bigots will stay. What a loss that would be.

Gabrielle Kirsch

University of Michigan


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