“Turn Away the Gays” bills return to the agenda

In December, Michigan’s State House of Representatives sent renewed shockwaves through LGBT communities across the country with its handling of House Bill 5958, which was rushed through the Michigan House Judiciary Committee and a full chamber vote in a single day. Like the Tennessee bill narrowly defeated last year, Michigan’s bill was modeled on the Federal “Religious Freedom and Restoration Act” (RFRA).

Passed under Bill Clinton, the RFRA was an attempt to protect religious minorities by prohibiting laws that “substantially burden” the sincerely held religious beliefs of citizens, unless the government can prove that such a law serves a compelling government interest that cannot be accomplished by less restrictive means. Since the Supreme Court determined in 1997 that the RFRA did not apply to states, nineteen state governments have passed their own version of the law.

Recent interest in passing such laws, however, has been driving by a Republican goal of protecting members of the majority religion from having to serve LGBT minorities. Often proposed in the name of shielding Christian bakers and florists from being forced to provide services in support of LGBT weddings that they morally oppose, these laws are often so broadly worded that they open up endless implications.

LGBT rights organizations and blogs worldwide raised awareness of Michigan’s law with provocative headlines like NewNowNext’s: “Michigan House Passed Bill Allowing EMTs to Refuse Treatment to Gay People.” However, the government does have a compelling interest in emergency medical care, and laws penalizing inaction in such situations are the direct route to achieving that end. Thus, laws governing EMTs do not actually fall afoul of the RFRA, and it is unlikely that any possible legal justification would allow EMTs to refuse treatment.

While the headlines may be overblown, at best using worst-case scenarios, the result they fear is very plausible. If an uninformed EMT believed the RFRA shielded him from legal action should he decide to withhold care from an emergency case, he would most probably be wrong. But that he would be punished for his inaction is of little consolation to the person who died because the EMT rejected his duty.

Chris Sanders, executive director of the Tennessee Equality Project (TEP), points to a slightly less extreme example with a similar potential for dire harm. “With regard to everything from weddings to essential care, think of small communities with single providers of services. What happens when you have no reliable access to long-distance transportation to seek alternatives when refused essential services? In the city, a patient could walk to the next nearest pharmacy for his HIV meds, but if a rural mom and pop pharmacist won’t fill the prescription, it could lead to a lack of compliance, with long term health impacts. The ability to decide whether to serve and moral judgment combined could lead to deadly consequence.”

Michigan sounds an alarm bell: 2015 is likely to see a flurry of new attempts to pass RFRAs across the country, even in places where they have already been defeated. There is a national movement that has not abandoned passing a new RFRA in Tennessee. In fact, Cathi Herrod, who was instrumental in Arizona’s attempt to pass a “turn the gays away” bill, was brought to Chattanooga and Nashville by the Family Action Council of Tennessee to galvanize supporters for a long-term fight. Sanders sees signs that “the other side is preparing for this kind of bill. If the Sixth Circuit had ruled in our favor the bill would already be filed, but I think we’ll see it anyway.”

On the other hand, he said, it’s possible that the legislature “will have its hands full with abortion, taxes, and common core. This could mean they don’t have time for anything else, or it could mean that so much energy is being spent on the fight over those three areas that they can rush through a ‘turn the gays away’ bill.”

It’s important that Tennesseans be prepared to mobilize against a new RFRA in Tennessee. Last year, putting a face on the impacts of the bill made all the difference, and Sanders said, “We’re going to need couples and individuals to step forward to talk about the impact on their life. Last year this helped shape the media narrative and drove the original sponsor away from the bill.” It’s also important to encourage the businesses we frequent to sign on with the “Equality Means Business” program, since a strong business response is a powerful counter.

It’s essential that these bills be fought. “If they pass,” Sanders explained, “it could take years to remove these laws from the books. The courts are unlikely to act on this when they’ve finally moved on marriage. It might take decades for the courts to strike down RFRAs, and longer if it’s left to the states. People need to be afraid and motivated: getting rid of them could be a nightmare.”




For more information, or to get involved, visit TEP.org, and follow the Tennessee Equality Project’s page on Facebook.

Photo courtesy of Jose Cuervo

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