When the Michigan Supreme Court reversed course last week and sent a controversial case back to the lower court, even proponents of the decision were surprised.
The case involves Jackson County landlords John and Terry Hoffius, who refused to rent to unmarried couples. The Hoffiuses claimed they were adhering to their Christian beliefs and were exercising constitutionally protected religious freedom when turning the unmarried couples away.
The Michigan Supreme Court late last year ruled against the Hoffiuses, saying the landlords violated the states Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act by discriminating against unmarried couples.
Since that decision, a newly elected Supreme Court with a conservative majority has been seated. The ruling to override the previous Hoffius decision and send the case back down to the district court is one of its first major actions.
"Im almost shocked. I didnt expect the Supreme Court to do this," said Jennifer Schans, regional director for the Rutherford Institute, a nonprofit group that provides legal assistance in religious freedom and human rights cases.
Schans said the new court made the right ruling in signaling that the religious freedom issue had been previously ignored and should be taken into consideration.
"It is always good to see a court thoroughly consider the significance of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and, as in this case, admit that more consideration needs to be given."
Reaction from the ACLU and gay rights groups was one of dismay.
"This decision is radical and very troubling," said Kary Moss, executive director of the Michigan ACLU. "The court disregards the entire notion of precedent, upon which our judicial system rests. It suggests an activist judiciary with little respect for basic human rights like shelter. By doing this, theyve opened the door to allow claims of religious freedom to justify discrimination."
Equally disturbing, said Moss, was the fact that newly elected justices Maura Corrigan and Clifford Taylor, both of whom were on the Court of Appeals when that case was heard there, participated in the recent Supreme Court decision.
"Its as if they are acting as their own judges," said Moss. "It undermines the whole system. They should have recused themselves."
The ruling, said Moss, sends a disturbing message.
"This is a very activist decision that departs from precedent. It sends the signal that some members of this court have their own agenda."
Gay rights groups, which fear the ruling could lead to discrimination against gays using the same religious freedom argument, also decried the action.
"This court is apparently unabashed at exercising political activism at the expense of justice and the deliberative process," said Jeff Montgomery, executive director of the Detroit-based Triangle Foundation.
Whatever the lower court rules, it is expected that decision will be appealed.
"We feel great and that we will prevail," said attorney Rick LaFlamme, who represented the Hoffiuses. "But no matter what the decision is, it will eventually be decided again by the Supreme Court."
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