Founders: Not leaving Grand Rapids chamber over Schuette endorsement

Jonathan Oosting
The Detroit News
Mike Stevens, left, and Dave Engbers of Founders Brewing, raise their beers as they are welcomed to Detroit during a press conference to announce a new taproom on Tuesday April 25,  2017.

Lansing — Founders Brewing Co., the state’s largest brewery, said Friday it is not leaving the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce after the business group endorsed Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette for governor.  

A social media post last week announcing Founder’s withdrawal from the chamber was made by an employee without the authorization of company officials, according to a statement released through a public relations firm.

The post encouraged other companies to leave the chamber — and a handful said they would — amid scrutiny over Schuette’s record on gay rights. The attorney general issued a legal opinion in June saying the state civil rights commission lacked authority to expand anti-discrimination protections without legislative approval.

 “At Founders, we support and attract diverse, passionate employees with strong personal opinions,” Founders co-founder and CEO Mike Stevens said Friday in a statement clarifying the company’s position.

 “While we celebrate diversity in everything that we are and everything we do, as a company we strive to stay focused on beer — and leave advocacy and politics to others. To the extent that the message was interpreted as an endorsement or opposition to a particular candidate, we want to be clear — Founders does not endorse any political candidates.”      

The initial Founder’s social media post, officially renounced by the company Friday, was celebrated last week by Schuette critics, including Democratic gubernatorial nominee Gretchen Whitmer, who posted footage of her drinking one of the company’s All Day IPA beers.

Whitmer has advocated for expanded anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual residents.

Schuette addressed the endorsement and gay rights controversy Monday at the West Michigan Policy Forum in Grand Rapids, where he said his legal opinion had been “misinterpreted” as opposition to the larger goal of curbing discrimination.

His campaign told The Detroit News he is open to expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976, but only in a way that would also protect religious liberties, raising the specter of exemptions that have proven controversial in other states.

“Tonight, as I often do, I'm going to have a Founders Solid Gold— maybe even two,” Schuette said in a Friday statement. “ I look forward to working together with the chamber and Founders in the future. Michigan must be a state free from discrimination.”

As attorney general, Schuette defended Michigan’s gay marriage ban that was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2015. As a state senator, he co-sponsored a 1996 law that outlawed same-sex marriages and prohibited the state from recognizing those performed in other jurisdictions.

The brewery said it has a two-decade relationship with the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and believes the organization, which supports expanded anti-discrimination protections, has been “out front” on the issue.

“We will be much stronger together than apart on these issues,” Stevens said. “We hope the passion over this issue and the recent dialogue driven by it will provide a strong base for continued conversation and action by all parties.”