Protecting gay rights, not blocking them, is what Michigan wants, Michigan Live

Like the overwhelming majority of Michigan residents who support marriage equality, I was thrilled with the Supreme Court’s decision on same-sex marriage last month.

I was able to witness a couple, together 31 years, marry on the steps of the Ingham County Courthouse. I, like many others, spent the days following the historic ruling celebrating with friends and families who were finally able to marry.

But there’s still more work to be done.

Right now in Michigan, a gay couple could be married on Sunday and fired on Monday, and there would be nothing illegal about it. That’s because the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act does not include protections for LGBT people.

That’s something we’re working on changing, and we have the support of a majority of Michiganders for doing it. In fact, there’s bipartisan consensus on this, according to a recent poll by Public Policy Polling.

And yet Senate Republicans have already blocked our attempts to move forward with equal rights for all, refusing to put expansion of  Elliott-Larsen up for a vote.

This comes at a time when it’s important than ever to expand civil rights to include our LGBT family, friends, and neighbors.

The ink on the Supreme Court decision was scarcely dry before prominent Republicans started calling for action on the misleadingly named Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA.

The RFRA legislation isn’t necessary to protect religious freedom. The state and federal constitutions both enshrine religious freedom as a protected right.

What RFRA actually does is allow people to discriminate against LGBT Michiganders, and use their religion as a defense.

Discrimination is all too common in Michigan. Without Elliott-Larsen expansion, we’ll see more of the same: a school guidance counselor refusing to help gay students in need because of the counselor’s religious faith; a doctor refusing a newborn baby as a patient because her parents are gay.

The Michigan Senate Democrats support religious freedom, and will continue to make sure it’s protected. But using religion to harm someone else or ignore the law isn’t religious liberty. It’s discrimination, and it’s already hurting Michigan’s children and families.

The “RFRA for Adoption” legislation that was signed into law by Gov. Rick Snyder hurts foster kids, who will have fewer chances to be placed in a loving forever home. The law lets taxpayer-funded, faith-based agencies turn away otherwise qualified couples on the basis of the agency’s beliefs. That means LGBT couples, unmarried couples, people who have been divorced, or people of different faiths could be denied the chance to bring a foster child into their family.

Legalized discrimination is bad for Michigan, but don’t take my word for it. Businesses almost universally oppose discriminatory laws like RFRA. Sandy Baruah, CEO of theDetroit Regional Chamber, has said “it would send a negative message when we’re trying to attract talent to Michigan.”

Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce President Rick Baker has said, “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. It wants to be one that is … very inclusive, welcoming and open for its customers, employees and for visitors in our region.”

Doug Rothwell, CEO of Business Leaders for Michigan, speculates that his members would say the Legislature “ought to be spending more time focusing on ways to grow the economy than on issues like that.”

Freedom Michigan, which was founded by the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, has come out in opposition to the so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act as well. The coalition includes some of Michigan’s largest employers like Whirlpool, Kellogg’s, AT&T, Herman Miller and Dow Chemical.

If Michigan is going to attract and retain a young, talented workforce, we must become a more inclusive state. Young people do not want to live in a state where they or their friends and neighbors are discriminated against. It is time for legislative Republicans to realize that so-called RFRA laws are bad for Michigan.

Michiganders clearly do not want RFRA legislation, and for good reason. There is nothing to be gained by RFRA advocates, because their freedom of religion is already protected. But RFRA laws would actually take away some people’s rights, all because someone else has a religious objection.

Religion should never be an excuse to discriminate against anyone. We are a country where people of all walks of life can co-exist.

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