I ran for State Representative in Michigan on a platform of social justice and equality in a conservative district. It was my first foray into the political arena as a candidate, so I wasn’t very well known outside of my home town. I gained notoriety in my district and around the world when I responded to a bigoted survey, but I lost the election by about 7,000 votes in a year that was not favorable to Democrats. My campaign was focused on having conversations about important issues sure to come up in the state legislature, such as the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to include LGBTQ peoples.
Since the election, Michigan’s Republican-dominated lame duck legislature has been very active, passing a bevy of laws including Michigan’s own version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act and another bill that would reclassify the burning of tires as a renewable energy source. Another law on the agenda is an attempt to rig Michigan’s Electoral College system.
Michigan’s legislature is only expected to move even further to the right in the next two years as Republicans have gained a greater advantage in both houses. The RFRA (House Bill 5958, which says in part “Laws neutral toward religion may burden religious exercise as surely as laws intended to interfere with religious exercise”) was originally brought up by Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger, who wanted to pair it with the bills that would update the ELCRA to provide protections to the gay community, ostensibly in an effort to dilute the effects of the civil rights expansion. It was notable at the time that the legislature had already dropped protections of transgender citizens of Michigan. This was a preview of what was to come, as the legislature seems to have dropped the expansion of the law as neither of the two versions of the bill moved out of committee.
This didn’t stop accusations about why the law failed from Republicans. Bolger’s own spokesperson blamed the Democrats in the legislature for the failure of the expansion because they demanded that transgender people be included in the law, which was supported by a very large group of corporations and civil rights groups. At the risk of being overly political, it needs to be said that that the Michigan Republicans are almost entirely responsible for Michigan’s horrible track record when it comes to LGBT rights. According to political columnist Susan J. Demas, “They’re the reason for laws barring benefits for state employees’ gay partners. They pushed to dock funding for universities for offering such benefits. They’re the reason why Michigan asked the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold its gay marriage ban. Yes, even so-called moderate Gov. Rick Snyder is on board with that. And he wants to invalidate 300 gay marriages performed while a federal judge briefly lifted the ban.” In the past they’ve also tried to push for laws that would invalidate local laws and ordinances about LGBT rights.
In the wake of the passage of the RFRA, which Republicans like incoming House Speaker Kevin Cotter said wouldn’t allow for discrimination, the State House passed a package of bills that would allow child placement agencies licensed with the state to deny certain people (like gay or lesbian couples) the ability to adopt due to their “sincerely held religious beliefs.” The package of bills includes house Bill 4927, House Bill 4928, and House Bill 4991.
House Bill 4927 basically shields child placing agencies from government sanctions because of any religious-based discrimination policies. It applies to state and local units of government, so more LGBT friendly cities like East Lansing and Ann Arbor wouldn’t be able to take any actions on their own against such an agency, or stop them from enacting discriminatory policies.
House Bill 4928 works in tandem with HB 4927, making it legal for any child placing agency to use any codified religious beliefs (as long as they’re sincerely held, of course) as a means of discrimination against obvious targets like the LGBTQ community, and perhaps other less obvious targets like single parents and those that have been divorced. In fact, these laws have been changed drastically since their introduction in 2013. The original wording was “religious and moral convictions” and that was widely criticized as being too open-ended. The two bills, when paired together, stop state and local government from sanctioning agencies that use the discriminatory policies, which would be made legal under HB 4928, when providing adoption or adoption-related services.
HB 4928 closes with a passage that I find to be dubious, considering the actual content of the law: “This amendatory act is not intended to limit or deny any person’s right to adopt a child.” While the laws do not overtly limit or deny a person’s right to adopt a child, the laws obviously have the effect of limiting a person’s right to adopt a child if they run head-first into the agency’s beliefs. The adoption of children seems to be on a fast-track to becoming akin to window shopping for the right television; perhaps its easy for some to forget that these laws impact real children in need of homes and not just one of many concepts of religious liberty.
House Bill 4991 contains essentially the same content of the previous two, but with the added proviso that any adoption agency that denies their services must refer the people to an agency that will not deny them. While that sounds promising, it’s possible that even this law could be curtailed the moment someone claims making that referral violates their religious beliefs.
HB 4991 is personal for me in that the primary sponsor of the bill is Representative Tom Leonard, my Republican opponent in this past election and incoming Speaker Pro Tempore. Leonard is a decidedly conservative politician, with Tea Party backing and an endorsement from Right to Life of Michigan. I only met him twice on the campaign trail because he was rather absent from many events.
One such event stands out in my mind as being especially related to these bills. I was invited, along with many other legislative candidates, to a candidate forum hosted by Peckham, the Peace and Prosperity Youth Action Movement, and Michigan’s Children. The forum was an enlightening experience, and I and the other Democratic candidates who attended (for no Republican candidates, including Leonard, showed up) were asked some very difficult questions about high school alternatives, education, and high school graduation rates from teenagers and students themselves. These were children who faced difficult circumstances, including living in poverty and even homelessness.
One of these brave teenagers, who is not originally from Michigan, told an emotionally-charged story about her experiences in the state’s foster system. She faced a choice: remain trapped in a foster home where she claimed she was sexually assaulted… or homelessness. I have to admit that even as I failed to contain my own emotional response, it was still something to see my 6’8” brother bawling his eyes out in the audience. It was a story that touched us while we all knew that things like these happened in the state’s foster system more often than anyone wanted to admit.
It’s an open secret that Michigan’s foster system is broken. In 2012, the state had the sixth largest in the country, with 13,282 children in the system. A few years ago the state was sued, and the state’s child foster care system was put under federal oversight. Now, Michigan has made a bid to end this federal oversight, even though there were 152 reported cases of neglect in the system, and, as reporter Rick Pluta writes, the advocacy group Children’s Rights says that the state “has an unacceptable safety record for children on foster care.”
To compound the state’s problems with its foster care system, the legislature now wants to give agencies legal cover to discriminate. The speed at which these laws was passed through the lame duck session of the legislature was matched in absurdity only by the Republicans’ silence on the real issues plaguing the state foster system, and their noted absence at the event where these children were to ask them questions. There’s no accounting in these laws for the many benefits that LGBTQ peoples being to the table when they adopt children. These laws put some vague concept of religious liberty ahead of the actual needs of the children in the foster care system in the state.
If you live in Michigan, there’s still a chance to contact elected officials in the State Senate and tell them what you think about this package of laws. If this bill advances in the Senate, Governor Rick Snyder’s contact information can be found here.
These laws hurt children, and they hurt the people of the LGBTQ community. They’re just more items on a list of laws by the Republican-controlled legislature that have made Michigan a laughingstock in the country. Many of us are still fighting to undo the damage caused by the so-called “rape insurance” bill, which mandates that women purchase separate insurance riders for abortion services, even when these riders are largely not available in the state.
While I am ashamed of my state’s legislature for passing such extreme and absurd laws, I am proud of the people who have stood up to be heard, even when their voices were largely absent from discussions in the House committees. We have a long way to go to bring sanity back to the Michigan legislature, but for now we’ll be forcing them to listen to us.