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Michigan ‘Conscience Clause’ Bill Goes Beyond Opt Outs

Robin Marty

In essence, a new bill in Michigan will offer religious entities their own set of exclusive rights to deem who is allowed health care and why.

Michigan’s SB 136, the “Religious Liberty and Conscience Protection Act,” is still sitting in the state senate despite warnings nearly two weeks ago that the bill would soon head to the legislative floor for a vote. Introduced by state Sen. John Moolenaar (R-Midland) and backed by the Michigan Catholic Conference, the bill has been dubbed an unnecessary and overly expansive extension of existing “conscience” protections for health-care workers by civil rights and health advocates. While bill supporters see the proposed law as a way to ensure that any person even remotely involved in patient care is protected from actions he or she may view as morally repugnant, opponents note that language in the bill could allow religious workers to become gatekeepers who can decide who’s worthy of care, and what sort of care that person will be allowed to receive.

The question inherent in SB 136 is: At what point does religious liberty trump a patient’s right to care? That’s the major concern of the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, which has objected to the bill, telling legislators that it “elevates the status of employees above the needs of patients.”

The religious liberties faction of the state argue that without such protections, health-care providers may be forced to participate in morally offensive medical care such as “prescribing medical marijuana, dispensing the ‘morning-after’ pill to prevent pregnancy or complying with a family’s decision to disconnect equipment that’s keeping alive a terminally ill patient,” according to the Detroit News. Rep. Moolenaar testified in committee that the bill would actually enhance patient care by creating a need to plan in advance for situations in which a medical professional may opt out of a procedure or instance of care. Yet when an amendment was offered that would forbid moral “opt outs” when there is no alternate provider within 25 miles, it was defeated.

It’s telling that SB 136 is considered a major legislative priority of the Michigan Catholic Conference while being opposed by Planned Parenthood, the Michigan Health and Hospital Association, the Michigan Psychiatric Association, the Michigan Disability Rights Association, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); the bill has little to do with addressing medical needs and everything to do with allowing religious entities to pick and choose care for patients. “It’s very broad in that it basically allows any person or organization or corporation to assert an objection to just about anything based on moral or principles or religious tenets,” Shelli Weisberg, the ACLU’s legislative director, told the Associated Press in April.

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But for all of the debate about how the law could potentially play out in hospitals, pharmacies, hospices, and health-care centers, the most notable expansion of “conscience” in the bill would be that of all employers to pick and choose what health-care coverage will be allowed in their employees’ insurance plans. In a state that is home to the Thomas More Law Center, a conservative legal group representing a number of companies and non-profits suing the Obama administration over the birth control mandate in the Affordable Care Act, it’s likely no coincidence that legislators think an employer’s conscience should trump an employee’s right to make health-care decisions.

Despite passing senate committee, the bill has yet to be scheduled for a full vote. After the 2012 fight over anti-choice legislation that was eventually watered down in final passage, the legislature may move a little more cautiously this year when it comes to cutting off health care at the request of religious entities and anti-birth control special interest groups.

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