Schuette's gay rights record in spotlight amid chamber backlash

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette faces the media scrum just hours before the polls close on primary election day, Aug 7, 2018.  Schuette's post-election event is being held at Dow Diamond, the home of Midland's minor league baseball team.  (Dale G.Young/Detroit News) 2018.

Lansing — Michigan Republican gubernatorial hopeful Bill Schuette is open to new anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender residents but only in a way that would also protect religious freedoms, he signaled this week in what opponents are calling an attempt to “rewrite history.”

Schuette strategist John Sellek pointed Thursday to Utah as "one example of the ability to find a way forward” on the issue. Utah in 2015 enacted employment and housing protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents but allows certain exemptions for religious organizations and affiliates, including schools and hospitals. 

“Bill's goal is to prohibit discrimination of any kind through Elliott-Larsen and protect constitutional religious freedoms,” Sellek told The Detroit News, referring to the state's anti-discrimination law. “He believes all sides must be brought to the table to talk in a welcoming environment for everyone involved.”

Schuette’s record on LGBT rights was thrust into the spotlight this week when Founders Brewing Co. and a handful of other local businesses canceled memberships in the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce because the organization endorsed the Midland Republican in the Nov. 6 election. 

As attorney general, Schuette defended the state's gay marriage ban that was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015, joined a 2016 suit challenging federal guidance for LGBT students and this year issued a controversial legal opinion challenging the Michigan Civil Rights Commission’s ability to apply existing anti-discrimination law to gay or transgender residents.

“Trying to claim he's a friend to the LGBTQ+ community goes against every action he's taken in his 33-year political career,” said Zack Pohl, a spokesman for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Gretchen Whitmer. He suggested Schuette is trying to “hide from his extensive record of discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community” because he’s behind in the polls.

Whitmer, the former state Senate minority Leader from East Lansing, has long supported expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

She has been endorsed by Mel Larson, the former Republican lawmaker who helped create the statute, the national  Human Rights Campaign and Equality Michigan, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization. 

“Nobody should lose their job or be evicted from their home because of who they are or who they love,” Whitmer said in a statement. “That's how we'll attract a talented workforce and make Michigan a state where everyone has a path to a high wage job, has access to quality, affordable health care, and can travel our roads safely.”

The Grand Rapids Chamber is among a growing number of business organizations that have called for LGBT protections to be added to the state’s civil rights law. Michigan’s Republican-led Legislature has not acted on those calls despite a nudge from term-limited GOP Gov. Rick Snyder.

The state Civil Rights Commission in May issued an interpretive statement holding that current law offers some protections for gay and transgender residents. Schuette said only lawmakers could make that call, but the commission ignored his opinion and the Michigan Department of Civil Rights has continued to investigate complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity. 

The attorney general has consistently argued that he is just doing his job. He defended the state’s gay marriage ban because voters approved it through a constitutional amendment in 2004, he said at the time, and his recent ruling on LGBT rights was limited to the civil rights commission’s authority to interpret law in a new way.

But as a state senator in 1996, Schuette co-sponsored a law that outlawed gay marriage in Michigan and prohibited the state from recognizing same-sex marriages from other jurisdictions. It was approved by wide margins with bipartisan support at the time.  

“Michigan must be a place where we grow our recovering economy and ensure there is no room for discrimination of any kind, because all people must be treated with dignity, grace and respect,” Schuette said in a statement this week. “We will work together to protect everyone, including employment protections and religious liberties. It's been done elsewhere.  It’s the 21st century, we can do it here, too.” 

The 2015 "Utah compromise" was unique because of the prominence of the Mormon church in that state, said Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan. While she is always open to talking to anyone willing to expand protections, Schuette's actions "show that whenever there’s been an opportunity for him to fight against LGBT rights, he's taken that opportunity."

Founders, the state’s largest brewery, on Wednesday joined a small but growing number of area businesses canceling their memberships in the Grand Rapids Chamber, citing the Schuette endorsement by the chamber’s political action committee. The city has become a liberal hot spot in West Michigan, a traditional Republican stronghold, voting 62 percent for Democrat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. 

"We stand with the LGBTQ community and ask that the Grand Rapids Chamber reverse their decision," Founders said in a social media statement. "We will be terminating our membership in the meantime and encourage our fellow local businesses to consider doing the same."

MIBIZ reported Wednesday that more than 50 area business professionals had also signed onto a letter asking the chamber to rescind its endorsement. Owners of Donkey Taqueria and The Winchester restaurants on Tuesday dropped their memberships.

Luke Londo, a Schuette staffer and campaign volunteer who is bisexual, defended the attorney general in personal comments on Twitter and decried what he called “manufactured outrage” that Founders and other “fell for.”

Schuette’s legal opinion simply held that the Legislature was the “avenue to fix” the civil rights law, Londo said. After the gay marriage case, he said he had a long conversation with Schuette about LGBT rights and his own orientation.

“The man y'all are vilifying hired me (knowing I was always this vocal) two years later,” Londo wrote. “If you knew him like I do, you'd know how out of touch this outrage mob is.”

Chamber officials were not immediately available for comment Thursday, but President and CEO Rick Backer said this week in a statement that the organization has heard frustration and disappointment by some “members of our business community, particularly as it relates to diversity, equity and inclusion.”

The chamber remains committed to those goals, Baker said. He explained that as part of the PAC endorsement process, candidates were “evaluated against the business policy agenda developed for and by our members.”

“We announced our endorsement of Bill Schuette because he aligns most closely with our business-friendly policies and all candidates are aware that an advocacy priority for the Chamber is expansion of the Elliott Larsen Act,” Baker said.

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Twitter: @jonathanoosting