Did Michigan Really Just Pass a Law Allowing EMTs to Refuse Service to Gay People?

Do you want the good news first, or the bad?
Publish date:
December 17, 2014
religion, Discrimination, Glbtq

Rumors about Michigan's House Bill 5958, which whipped through committee and passed on the floor last week, have been racing across the Internet. The most common claim is that the bill will allow EMTs to refuse to offer medical aid to gay people -- which sounds pretty awful, and is generating a lot of outrage.

In fact, the situation is a lot more complicated than that. The way HB 5958 would work, if enacted, wouldn't be quite this simple. It could actually be a whole lot worse, if you can believe it -- but with some important caveats.

First, let's go over what you need to know about HB 5958, popularized as a "religious freedom" measure. Michigan isn't the first state to suggest that the government shouldn't interfere with "religious freedom" by forcing government employees or businesses to do things that run contrary to their religious beliefs -- like, say, providing flowers for a gay wedding, which is obviously a huge burden for conservative Christians. Mississippi tried and succeeded, while states like Arizona had a go and failed because of public outcry. The bill "[limits] governmental action that substantially burdens a person's exercise of religion." In fact, there's a federal law (the Federal Religious Freedom Act, signed into law by Bill Clinton), that says basically that as well.

Put in simpler terms: If someone can demonstrate that something violates her religious beliefs, she may refuse to do it, and she could claim an exemption from possible penalties on the grounds that the government is interfering with her freedom of religion. In a classic example, a pharmacist could refuse to provide birth control or emergency contraception and insist that she wasn't violating her mandate as a medical provider because being forced to offer such medications violates her faith -- and patients could obtain reproductive health medications elsewhere.

The bill as it stands still needs Senate approval, and it needs to be signed by the governor. So it hasn't entered into law yet, although it very well might (and it might do so with considerable tweaks, depending on how things shake down).

So what about this EMT thing? Scaremongering reporting says that given the language of this legislation, if an EMT refuses medical aid to a gay person, she could say that providing treatment to gay people goes against her faith, and that the mandate to always provide assistance in emergency situations doesn't apply to her, under HB 5958. The thing is, she'd probably be wrong, and not just ethically.

That's because the bill notes that if there is a "substantial government interest," the government can push through penalties anyway. Thus, our treatment-denying EMT could be penalized if a patient dies or experiences complications on her watch -- and, given liability issues, EMTs who claim that they wouldn't assist gay people would probably have trouble getting jobs in Michigan.

Likewise, ER docs would be compelled to treat LGBQT people due to the mandate that they must provide basic medical treatment to people in emergency medical situations. If you're in a car wreck and you're wearing a "legalize gay" shirt, any medical personnel who try to deny care are going to get in big trouble, HB 5958 be damned.

However, other people could deny service not just to LGBQT people, but to other groups, on the grounds that it compromises their faith, and they might win. Landlords, employers, and many others might argue that discrimination is entirely legal under the law, and that the government doesn't have a substantial interest that would compel them to behave otherwise. That means that, for example, an employer could refuse to extend health benefits to same-sex partners, or that obstetrical nurses could refuse to participate in abortions.

As people deny services on the grounds of religious faith, their victims won't be able to get what they need (or want). They may sue, arguing a compelling government interest, but the case could spend months or even years in court. That's a battle that not everyone can afford to fight, and no one should have to fight. It's absurd to have to sue for basic equality in a country that claims to value equality and civil rights.

A bill that protects vulnerable populations from being forced to do things that violate their religious beliefs is one thing -- for example, Muslims have an exemption to the ADA definition that limits service animals to dogs, and are allowed to use miniature ponies instead. These laws, however, are very transparently aimed at "protecting" conservative Christians and their desire to dominate the whole of society with their moral and social attitudes.

Fighting bills like this requires a tide of public outcry. Arizona makes a great case study, as the state heard not just from angry citizens, but also from major corporations that threatened to terminate business operations in the state if its religious freedom law was passed.

Ultimately, though, ultra-conservative Christians need to not put themselves in situations or fields where they might be "forced" to "violate" their ridiculous, outdated, and, honestly, un-Christian morals. If you don't want to provide medical aid to LGBQT people, don't be a first responder. If you think women are whores for having sex before marriage, don't become a police officer who might have to respond to rape reports. If you have a problem with abortion, don't become an OB/GYN or obstetrical nurse. If you think reproductive rights shouldn't accessible, don't be a pharmacist.

Jesus spent time with sex workers, hung on the cross next to a pair of thieves, sat down with traitors, washed the feet of the poor, and repeatedly humbled himself in the belief that his mission was to serve all equally, without judgement or commentary. Jesus once noted that "he who is without sin" should "cast the first stone," (John 8:7) in reference to accusations made against an adulteress. There's a lot of stone casting going on in the conservative Christian community, but I'm not entirely sure that hating people demonstrates a lack of sin.