May 29, 2014 at 1:00 am

Mich. gay rights bid gains momentum as Snyder, growing business group signal support

Gov. Rick Snyder speaks at the opening ceremony Wednesday at the 2014 Mackinac Policy Conference at the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island. (John L. Russell / Special to The Detroit News)

Gov. Rick Snyder voiced support for the first time Thursday for a legislative debate on whether Michigan should protect gays and lesbians from workplace discrimination as more companies stepped up pressure to change the law to compete for talented workers.

The Republican governor’s comments in the second day of the Mackinac Policy Conference came as three corporate heavyweights, including Chrysler Group LLC, joined a coalition to lobby lawmakers to make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

But Snyder stopped short of fully endorsing a change to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a 38-year-old law that bans denying someone a job or housing opportunity based on their religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status.

“I’m not taking a position on the actual issue at this point, but saying let’s get it in front of the Legislature, let’s have a dialogue and discussion, and hopefully get some resolution on this issue,” Snyder said at the conference attended on Mackinac Island by 1,600 state business, education and political leaders.

But Snyder’s comments spurred Republican U.S. Senate candidate Terri Lynn Land also to support making it illegal to deny someone employment based on his or her sexuality.

“I support no discrimination for anyone and have always ... had that position since I got involved with work, business, public service and I think it’s very important,” Land said in an interview with The Detroit News. “People should be able to get a job on their credentials and how well they can perform in their employment.”

Land said she was joining a growing chorus of business leaders and Republican politicians calling for changes to the law “because it’s on the table now in the Legislature.” She predicted Snyder would come fully on board with updating the civil rights law.

“As the governor has done in right to work, in minimum wage, when the governor says he’s going to do something, he does it,” Land said.

Gay rights activists like Emily Dievendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan, said Thursday she’s happy to hear Snyder getting involved in the issue.

“We aren’t surprised,” Dievendorf said. “We’ve been having productive discussions with legislators across the aisle, and we’ve been getting growing support.”

Dievendorf said legal protection for Michigan gays and lesbians is sorely needed because discrimination remains a problem for them. “A bulk of our complaints are employment discrimination cases. It is still absolutely legal for someone to get fired for being gay.”

Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing greeted Snyder’s support Thursday in a backhanded way.

“I do not know if we have the business community, the election year or an honest ideological progression to thank, but I am glad to see that the governor is finally on board with offering basic civil rights protections to all Michigan citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity,” she said in a statement, noting Snyder has opposed domestic partner benefits for state employees and gay marital equality.

House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, also welcomed the governor’s comments.

“I believe discrimination is wrong, and we need to protect all people on this question,” Bolger told The News.

Bolger said he’s still researching how to strike a balance between providing workplace legal protections for gays and the liberties of people religiously opposed to homosexuality.

“It’s a difficult balance to strike, but it’s an absolutely necessary balance to find,” Bolger said Thursday, noting no such bill has been introduced in the House.

But such a debate and possible amendment to the state’s civil rights law isn’t sitting well with Flint pastor Stacy Swimp, who is part of a coalition of mostly African-American ministers opposed to legalizing gay marriage.

Swimp said “there is no such thing as civil rights based on behavior or conduct,” and that he doesn’t believe gays and lesbians face discrimination like that of people of color.

“They have attempted to hijack the civil rights movement,” Swimp said Thursday. “They have created a false conversation around conduct. (African-Americans) were discriminated against based on our skin color. (Gays and lesbians) are abusing the 14th Amendment.”

The Michigan Catholic Conference, which has opposed changing the law, said religious freedom should be kept in mind during any legislative debate.

“The governor has said there should be a thoughtful discussion about this issue, and we strongly believe that a large part of that discussion should focus on protecting the First Amendment rights of religious persons and institutions,” said Dave Maluchnik, Catholic Conference spokesman. “In this regard, we appreciate the efforts of the speaker of the House to ensure religious liberty rights are upheld and respected through the process.”

Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, said extending Elliot-Larsen protections to gays and lesbians discriminates against people who “don’t endorse or promote or accept either homosexual behavior or the political agenda that promotes it.”

“They have a proven track record of discriminating against individuals, business owners, churches, students, community organizations like the Boy Scouts and Catholic charities,” Glenn said Thursday. “This is a demonstrably discriminatory solution in search of a nonexistent problem.”

Earlier Thursday, Chrysler Group, Kellogg Co., Pfizer as well as the Detroit and Grand Rapids chambers of commerce joined a statewide coalition in asking lawmakers to include gays and lesbians under the protections of the Elliot-Larsen Act. The coalition was started by companies including AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Dow Chemical Co. and Whirlpool Corp.

It is the first time Chrysler has come out in support of changing the state law. Thursday, the company cited its “commitment to diversity is a longstanding and ingrained part of our culture.”

“The company supports the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition’s efforts to update Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act ... to expressly prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity because of Chrysler Group’s longstanding belief in the need to attract, retain and develop world-class talent, and to ensure Michigan’s continued competitiveness in a global economy,” said Kevin E. Frazier, a Chrysler Group spokesman.

“The coalition is growing,” said Jim Murray, president of AT&T and co-chairman of the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition. “... The more voices the better, and we are still taking volunteers.”

Detroit Regional Chamber President and CEO Sandy Baruah also said gay rights are important for attracting talented workers to Michigan.

“We are in a global war for talent, and need the best and brightest workforce to compete in the 21st century economy, regardless of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Baruah said. “We are committed to a Michigan where all are free and welcome to contribute to our economic comeback.”