Thursday, December 11, 2014

Michigan's Religious Freedom Act is Dangerous

Imagine a Jewish man speeding his car at dangerous speeds down a residential street. The police officer pulls him over for reckless driving, but the man explains that he was breaking the civil law because his religion demanded he get home before the Jewish Sabbath begins. He cites the state's Religious Freedom Restoration Act as his defense and demands the officer let him be on his way. Of course, such a case would be ridiculous, but that is the slippery slope that we could face in my home state should this bill pass the State Senate and then be signed into law by Michigan Governor Rick Snyder.

While I am a rabbi and an observant Jewish person, I am opposed to this bill, known as Michigan HB 5958. Opponents of this legislation recognize that such a law would give people the ability to discriminate and use their religious tenets as a legal defense. Our country shouldn't let people use their religion as an excuse to break the law or discriminate against others. And that is precisely what this bill has the potential to do as I wrote in an op-ed published today on

Freedom of Religion Shouldn’t Be Unconditional

Have you ever heard of a rabbi who was against religious freedom? I certainly hadn’t until last week when I became one. Well, I’m not really against religious freedom per se, but I am against the “Religious Freedom and Restoration Act” (RFRA). That bill, known as HB 5958, was passed by the Michigan House of Representatives on December 4 and could soon be passed by Michigan’s Senate and then signed into law by the Governor. I am concerned.

Michigan's Religious Freedom and Restoration Act would mean more hardships and discrimination

It would seem that any congressional bill that advocated for religious freedom would be a good thing. After all, I believe that one of the most cherished benefits of living in a democracy like the United States is that we all have the right to practice our own faith. However, this bill, if signed into law, would have many negative consequences. (A similar bill was ultimately vetoed by the Governor in Arizona.)

HB 5958 seeks to “limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion,” which includes “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.” This language would allow individuals to choose not to service other individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs. Imagine if a bakery owner was asked to produce a wedding cake for two homosexual men who were getting married. Claiming that his deeply held religious beliefs forbid homosexuality and therefore gay marriage, the bakery owner would be able to legally refuse to sell this couple a cake. In other words, his bigotry would be upheld by state law.

Another example would be a Jewish pharmacist who refuses to fill a medicine prescription for a fellow Jew with gelatin capsules on the basis that selling non-kosher pills to another Jew violates a religious law he follows. Perhaps a Catholic pharmacist would refuse to fill a prescription for birth control pills or an abortion pill. How about a Muslim shopkeeper who could, under HB 5958, refuse to sell a bottle of wine to a fellow Muslim, citing his own Islamic beliefs.

A few years ago I debated this topic while leading a seminar for second-year medical students. The question posed to the group was whether it was ethical for a Jehovah’s Witness health care worker to refuse to perform blood transfusions based on religious belief. Could they simply request that another health care worker perform such a procedure, or might this lead to a situation in which each medical employee of a hospital would have the ability to refuse certain procedures based on their own religious affiliation, causing chaos and confusion, not to mention risking the patients’ health?

The intent of HB 5958 is to protect the religious rights of Michigan’s citizens. But it would actually allow for religious tenets to be used for discrimination against individuals. [...]



Avrohom said...

The law does not alow a Doctor to refuse to treat based on another person's religious prederences. You got it wrong

Rabbi Jason Miller said...

Avrohom: I never said a doctor. I said a health care professional. There are health care workers who have used the RFRA in defense of not treating patients. A clear example would be a devout Catholic refusing to prescribe the morning after pill.

Further, I was recently at a hospital and there was a sign posted alerting patients that some members of their staff (i.e. health care professionals) have refused to get a flu shot because of their religious beliefs and these employees of the hospital must consent to wear a mask instead. Hospital policy says all workers must get a flu shot for health reasons, but these employees refuse and put patients at an elevated health risk, yet they are not terminated. Why?

Michael said...

I am not familiar with this bill, and would refrain from passing judgment until having read it. However, after having read the TIME article, I wonder why you have a problem with a bakery refusing to provide a wedding cake for a homosexual couple. If the bakery owner feels that the marriage is wrong and is willing to forgo the profit of a sale due to his belief, why are you forcing him to do so? It is his business, so why can he not refuse a customer? What if I need services on a Sunday, but the provider that I would like to use does not work on Sundays because of his religious beliefs that the day is his Sabbath. Can I force him to work for me? After all, he is refusing me due to his religious beliefs. Let’s make this more personal – I want you to perform my wedding, but I am a Jew marrying a non-Jew. How can you refuse me?

The fact is that the homosexual couple can go find another bakery (and, in fact, I would assume that they prefer to patronize a baker who is not “bigoted”), just like I can go find a service provider who will work on Sundays, or a rabbi who will perform an intermarriage.

Religious beliefs aside, I have a problem when we tell business owners or service providers what they can and cannot do, and requiring us to provide a service for which we are religiously opposed starts a different slippery slope.

Michael said...

After reading your blog post, I googled the issue and found the following article, which provides a different side of the story:

Anonymous said...

There are always different sides to any story / issue.
The Michigan Freedom of Religion and Restoration Act does not allow discrimination,
but instead prevents person's of faith to not be forced or mandated to provide/perform
services that are directly against their religious beliefs.

If a Catholic doctor does not want to perform an abortion or prescribe the morning after pill,
that is not discrimination, it is their right. Likewise, if a Catholic owner of a bakery does
not want to make a cake or a Christian banquet hall owner not rent to a homosexual couple, that should be their option.
If a Jewish bakery owner was asked to bake a cake for a member of the American Nazi Party,
I would hope the owner would have the right to say, No.

Back in 2012, I was told by a local t-shirt printing company that the shop owner said he would not print my 500 t-shirts due
to the statements on the shirts. I needed 500 t-shirts that said, "Save a Baby, Abort a Democrat" and
"Thank GOD your Mother was Pro-life". Since the owner did not agree with that, it was his right.
Likewise, to his surprise, it was my right to take my business elsewhere, including the 5,000+ t-shirts that I order each year.

A business or individual should have the right to refuse to do anything that conflicts with their religious beliefs,
unless it hinders saving a life. In my case with the t-shirts, it may have been religious or political, but it
was the shop owners right.