Michigan ‘religious freedom’ act concerns business leaders

By COLLIN KRIZMANICH

Capital News Service

LANSING — Business leaders in Michigan are wary of proposed legislation that could lead to discrimination against those in the LGBT community.

The passage of a similar Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana resulted in a backlash not only from gay and lesbian activist groups, but also business and even some religious leaders.

“Economically, it would not be good for Michigan,” said Jennifer Kluge, CEO of the Michigan Business and Professional Association. “It won’t be good for anybody if the economy goes in a negative direction after all the work our legislature and governor have done to move it forward.”

This legislation would provide legal protections for people in Michigan who refuse to provide services to individuals based upon religious beliefs.

Opponents of the legislation say it would allow businesses to discriminate against individuals, particularly those in the LGBT–lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender– community. Proponents of the legislation believe it protects the freedom of religious individuals to run their businesses the way they see fit.

With economic conditions improving in Michigan, Kluge believes that the last thing Michigan needs is another barrier to economic growth in the state.

“It’s not good timing and not a smart piece of legislation right now,” she said.

Individuals from Apple CEO Tim Cook to the four coaches participating in this year’s Final Four NCAA basketball tournament have publicly expressed discontent with the language of the Indiana legislation.

Opinions vary on whether Michigan’s proposed law would go as far as Indiana’s original version, which was softened under pressure in early April. But regardless of substantive differences, if Michigan follows Indiana in passing such a law, business leaders expect consequences.

“I don’t know why we would do the same thing and expect different results,” said Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

A version of the religious freedom bill passed the Michigan House in the last legislative session, but didn’t find its way through the Senate. In January, the legislation was reintroduced in Michigan, this time in the Senate, and it is currently awaiting action in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Committee Chairman Rick Jones, a Republican from Grand Ledge, said he expects to have a hearing on the Michigan legislation in early May. Once the public fully understands the Michigan legislation, they will be more supportive, he said.

“I expect there will be a good debate,” Jones said. “I believe when the truth comes out and we don’t have this massive campaign of misinformation, people will be very understanding.”

Even if the bill were to pass the legislature, though, it could stop with Gov. Rick Snyder.

Snyder has told reporters he will veto the Religious Freedom Restoration Act unless it is coupled with legislation amending the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to protect LGBT individuals, which many believe would create a barrier to discrimination.

For business leaders such as Baker, the possibility that Michigan could be perceived as a state that discriminates would affect the kind of people who want to live and work here.

“Attracting talent is the number one issue,” Baker said. “We have seen in Indiana that it’s creating another barrier for being open and inclusive, affecting the ability to attract and retain the talent businesses need to be successful.”

With the national spotlight focused on Indiana, many in the business community are hoping that cooler heads will prevail in Michigan.

“I’m confident that we can learn from what’s going on in other states,” said Rich Studley, president and CEO of the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which has not taken a formal position on the state’s proposal. “Hopefully if there is a debate in Michigan it will be more substantive and less confrontational.”

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