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Michigan’s new SOGI policy threatens religious liberty

The state updates its discrimination rule but removes religious protections

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (center) calling for expanding the state's civil rights law, June 4, 2019. Associated Press/Photo by David Eggert, File

Michigan’s new SOGI policy threatens religious liberty

On Wednesday, Michigan state legislators followed the lead of nearly half the country, passing a bill adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s nondiscrimination policy.

Most states’ nondiscrimination policies, many of which have been in place for decades, prevent employers, housing providers, schools, and public entities from withholding services based on categories like age, sex, and national origin. With last week’s bill, the Wolverine State joins 21 states adding sexual orientation and gender identity to existing rules.

But lawmakers in Michigan rejected a provision for religious accommodations. Some are worried that this will spell trouble for religious institutions, particularly those that adhere to more traditional views on marriage, sexuality, and gender.

Michigan’s bill backs up the state Supreme Court’s 2022 decision that interpreted existing nondiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Last year, attorneys at Alliance Defending Freedom filed two lawsuits over the Michigan courts’ interpretation, one on behalf of a Catholic school and the other for a Christian healthcare center.

Greg Baylor, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, said that when it comes to nondiscrimination policies, most states are fairly consistent on what religious exemptions cover. States typically do not offer exemptions to public accommodations and services such as local restaurants or photography studios. But virtually every state offers religious exemptions for employers and housing providers.

Baylor said that Michigan’s lack of religious accommodations in these areas is very much out of step with other states. He expressed concern that this bill, expected to be signed into law by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, will “dramatically threaten” many religious institutions who wish to operate in a manner consistent with their beliefs.

A religious university might violate the rule if it refused to assign a women’s dorm room to a biological male who identifies as a female student, said William Wagner, a Michigan lawyer and president of the Great Lakes Justice Center. Michigan’s bill would protect the student, but not the university. Last year, College of the Ozarks, a Christian university in Missouri, found itself in that dilemma when it refused to assign a biological male to a female dorm.

Michigan’s omission is not an oversight. A number of Michigan state legislators proposed amendments protecting religious rights. State Sen. Ed McBroom spoke on the Senate floor for nearly 30 minutes in opposition to the bill. “This legislation will create impossible-to-resolve conflicts for churches, individuals, employers and employees,” he said.

McBroom, a Christian who believes the Bible’s directives on homosexuality and gender, told me that even if his fellow legislators had adopted a religious exemption, he still would not have voted for the bill. He said that offering a religious exemption to immoral behaviors is like saying, “‘Stealing is okay over here, as long as my community doesn’t have to have it.’ Right away we can identify that that’s untenable. We’re trying to do that with morality.”

The bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Jeremy Moss, argued on the Senate floor against any sort of religious accommodation. As a gay Jewish man, he said, “There is no conflict between my sexual orientation and my religion. I’m saddened that there is in your religion, but you have that right in this country to practice that.”

Wagner said that ultimately, the new policy protects two new categories of people by discriminating against another category. “If you’re going to put this in, protect everybody and also protect religious conscience, because otherwise you’re opening yourself up for people to weaponize the law, and you’re opening yourself to lawsuits,” he said.

Eileen McNeil is the president of Citizens for Traditional Values, a Michigan advocacy group that protested the bill. She said that even though the bill passed without a religious accommodation, she remains hopeful that Michigan Christians like her can still uphold their beliefs in the public square.

“No one seeks to hate or discriminate—that’s wrong,” she said. “We do see everyone in the image of God. That is how we act. But we will have to defend ourselves if someone comes into our institution and demands we comply with something that violates our convictions.”

Juliana Chan Erikson

Juliana is a correspondent covering marriage, family, and sexuality as part of WORLD’s Relations beat. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and earned a master’s degree from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. Juliana resides in the Washington, D.C., metro area with her husband and three children.

Thank you for your careful research and interesting presentations. —Clarke

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