In a recent interview, Michigan Senator Rick Jones claimed that The Satanic Temple of Detroit is a reason you should support the Michigan Religious Freedom and Restoration Act (MI-RFRA). Exploiting fears of history’s most infamous scapegoat, the Senator is swooping in to offer MI-RFRA as protection from the local baking enterprises from Michigan’s Satanic community: “…if a man has a bakery and he bakes cakes for a living and the Satanic Temple of Detroit comes in and says, ‘I want you to make a satanic cake with a big snake and other symbolism and he says, ‘I simply can’t do that because of my religion.’ He should have the right to say no.”
Despite adamant refusal to concede to claims that the bill could provide a “license to discriminate,” Senator Jones claims the initiative will protect an individual’s religious liberties, unless of course it’s the religious liberties of people such as members of The Satanic Temple of Detroit, or others who offend normative religious sensibilities. In fact, historically speaking there’s never been a single “religious liberty” claim in the courts that hasn’t explicitly involved limiting someone else’s rights. In Michigan, there was no discriminatory infraction or call to action by the citizens of the state due to some impending government stranglehold on the religious liberties of Michiganders, unless you consider providing protections for the LGBTQ community a sign that our religious freedoms are under fire. However, that’s precisely the argument from Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger who introduced the bill as a way “balance” the rights of religious people in response to an amendment to add both sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a nondiscrimination bill that’s now been considered “dead” due to a refusal to include members of the transgender community in the legislation. So while the legislature is on a crusade to safeguard the “freedoms” of a religious majority, they find it morally incomprehensible to consider basic civil rights protections for marginalized individuals, many of them Christians themselves. In an oh-too-typical inversion of the victim-oppressor dynamic, a federal law initially designed to protect the religious minority is turned on its head. The LGBTQ community has become the bully, while Christians are painted as oppressed victims.
In case you’re unfamiliar with MI-RFRA, the bill would protect people from laws that substantially burden their sincerely held religious beliefs unless the government can prove that the offending law serves a compelling interest and accomplishes that goal using the least restrictive means possible. Representative Bolger claims that the law cannot be discriminatory because it’s meant to exist between an individual and a government action, not between two individuals like, for example, the religious pediatrician and a patient with same-sex parents. However, that’s exactly what the bill permits. MI-RFRA would enable businesses to effectively “opt out” of laws that would, say, forbid discrimination based on things such as gender identity and sexual orientation. In an open letter to the press, Ari Alder, spokesperson for Rep. Bolger defended the bill claiming that “opportunists” have suggested “people will suddenly be able to ignore existing laws (which is) nothing more than scaremongering tactics without any basis in reality.” However, it seems the “opportunists” are in his own camp, making claims in favor of disregarding basic civil rights protections and exemptions to public accommodation laws by means of RFRA.
Let’s consider the illustration proposed by Senator Jones regarding a deeply offensive Satanic cake order. It’s true that businesses have the right to refuse service to customers for a number of reasons such as when a patron endangers the safety and well being of other patrons, is lacking adequate clothing or the business is at capacity. However, due to a little thing called the Civil Rights Movement and the resulting Federal Civil Rights Act, all people have the right to “full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of any place of public accommodation, without discrimination or segregation on the ground of race, color, religion, or national origin,” which means denying service to the Satanist due to his religious themed cake would be a violation of the patron’s civil rights. But isn’t the bakeshop private property? Yes, however, because the shop’s primary purpose is to serve the general public, it is also considered a place of “public accommodation,” which requires susceptibility to equal protection laws. Therefore, private property does not excuse unjustified refusal of service. Further, according to the Supremacy Clause of the United States Constitution, the state RFRA law cannot trump the Federal Civil Rights Act. Does that mean that the Civil Rights Act will go unchallenged? Of course not. In fact many people have attempted to challenge the Civil Rights Act on the basis of one’s faith, including segregationists in the 1960’s who claimed that racial segregation was a “gift from God.”
While the free exercise of religion is one of many civil rights, it may not necessarily trample on the rights of another. In a conflict, the courts take on the burden of valuing one civil right over another. In the case of a Christian pediatrician who refuses to care for the child of same-sex parents, the pediatrician would have to prove that providing services to the child severely violates a deeply held religious belief if taken to court. Now, in Michigan, same-sex couples are literally afforded no protections under the state’s civil rights act, but let’s just pretend our legislature has grown up at least as much as Utah circa March 2015. Unless the Bible has undergone a recent revision, there is no Christian teaching forbidding one from caring for individuals associated with practices that might be considered biblically reprehensible. If this rule were to be applied, would it be permissible to turn away the child of an unmarried mother? What about a Jewish family? Nobody is asking the pediatrician to approve of same-sex parenthood, nor to endorse homosexuality, so where do we draw the line? Is caring for patients as a career a religious act at all? The pediatrician is operating as a commercial agent, selling healthcare to paying patrons. Just like all commercial businesses open to the public, the establishment is subject to certain federal regulations, such as labor laws, environmental laws, tax regulations and non-discrimination laws, regardless of whether the doctor, or employer disagrees with them. If an individual finds that abiding by secular civic law is ethically problematic, perhaps that individual should choose a profession outside of public service. However, once you take on a position that serves the public, one may occasionally have to sacrifice engrained superstitions in order to accommodate the diverse community which welcomes your business, the legal protections provided to them, as well as mandated regulations that are intended to ensure that our communities function both safely and fairly.
Despite the Senator and his colleagues’ wet dreams, MI-RFRA cannot exclusively “protect the religious freedoms” of a single faith. It must accommodate the religious beliefs of all citizens. Therefore The Satanic Temple does not consider the bill a threat to our activities, but an opportunity. We’d like to be very clear here: if RFRA passes we have every intention of taking full advantage of the provisions it may provide to protect our sincerely held religious beliefs from biased faith-based initiatives unjustly imposed by our government. Unlike the segregationists and the Senator, The Satanic Temple of Detroit has no intention of utilizing MI-RFRA to discriminate against others whom we disagree with, but to utilize the bill to ensure our voice and opinion has equal footing within the law. In fact, as a gesture of clarity and respect for the time and resources of our courts, who will inevitably be charged with the responsibility of arbitrating the countless number of cases brought before them, The Satanic Temple of Detroit has made signs available online for print-up that both allow for businesses to specify who they discriminate against, or, if they have a non-discrimination policy in effect. The signs, available at on the Detroit Satanic Temple website read:
“Due to sincerely held religious beliefs, No service for: (fill in the blank),” and a second sign displaying the words: “Due to sincerely held beliefs, All are welcome.”
Additionally, we’ve begun a petition advocating for an amendment to the MI-RFRA bill, which would legally require businesses that accommodate the public to post any discrimination policy in effect in a conspicuous location visible to patrons and employees. We believe that it would be better for everybody involved if businesses and services were completely transparent regarding their positions on discrimination.
Contrary to Sen. Rick Jones’s disingenuous ‘baker’s rights’ fantasy, The Satanic Temple is neither the cause nor a sensible justification for passing the MI-RFRA bill. However, if in his transparent zeal to legalize anti-homosexual discrimination, the Senator manages to see the bill passed, we will make certain we are counted among its beneficiaries.
(2014, November 13). House Bill 5958 http://1.usa.gov/1EVbkUq
Alder, Ari. (2014, December 15). PRO Religious-freedom act would protect Michigan people of faith. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1CndRX8
Foltin, Richard T. (2013) Reconciling Equal Protection and Religious Liberty. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1Eq89RM
Holland, Alana. (2015, February 25). Lawmakers weigh in on religious freedom bills. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1BM3aLJ
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Millhiser, Ian. (2014, February 26). When ‘Religious Liberty’ Was Used To Justify Racism Instead of Homophobia. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1hrWAyx
Oosting, Johnathan. (2015, January 22). Religious freedom bill returns in Michigan Senate. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1yJGHxp
———. (2014, December 3). ‘Historic’ gay rights hearing ends without vote on Michigan anti-discrimination proposals. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/1zkDGRM
Phillip, Abby. (2015, February 19). Pediatrician refuses to treat baby with lesbian parents and there’s nothing illegal about it. Retrieved from http://wapo.st/1GdDqaz