Anti-bias proposal for gays stalls

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — House Speaker Jase Bolger's office on Wednesday declared legislation prohibiting discrimination against gays and lesbians dead for the year because Democrats refused to vote for it without legal protections for transgender people.

"The extremists on the left were successful in preventing civil rights protections for gays and lesbians in Michigan," Bolger spokesman Ari Adler said late Wednesday.

Bolger, R-Marshall, has opposed Democratic demands that "gender identity or expression" be added to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, arguing transgender individuals are already protected from discrimination under the classification of "sex."

"They demanded extra language for a group that is already protected," Adler said. "By taking a hard line and insisting that we provide double protection for transgender individuals, they blocked protection for gays, lesbians and bisexuals."

Kary Moss, executive director of the ACLU of Michigan, said specific protections for gender identity is needed to prevent a "patchwork" of local human rights ordinances from being inconsistent with state law.

"There's no such thing as double protection," said Moss, who is part of the Freedom Michigan coalition urging lawmakers to pass a "fully inclusive" bill that includes transgender individuals.

Moss was hopeful Bolger would still allow a vote before the lame-duck legislative session ends Dec. 18.

"The speaker has always said discrimination is wrong and the ball is now in his court," Moss said. "He has the power to bring it to the floor and we hope he will."

The stalemate emerged Wednesday after the House Commerce Committee held a jam-packed hearing on the deeply divisive issue. Bolger is still advancing a separate bill to expand religious liberties that was originally proposed as a counterbalance to granting gays and lesbians the same protection against discrimination as racial and religious minorities have.

Rep. Frank Foster, chairman of the committee, said there's not enough votes to advance his legislation protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination to the floor.

The Petoskey Republican also said there's not enough votes on the GOP-dominated committee to pass a competing proposal that includes gender identity for transgender people under the Elliott-Larsen act.

"We're closer, but we're not there yet," Foster said after a hearing on the bills. "And I'm not sure we're going to get there."

After the hearing, Bolger's office went a step further and said the issue would not get resolved this year. "The speaker believes after today's committee hearing that there's no chance this bill will move this year," Adler said.

House Democrats have united against Foster's bill because they contend it would allow discrimination against transgender Michiganians in housing, the workplace and public accommodations to continue.

"The fact we'd have any discrimination is not good public policy," said Rep. Sam Singh, D-East Lansing.

Singh has 51 co-sponsors on his bill that adds the words "gender identity or expression" to the list of protected classes of individuals. A bill needs 56 votes to pass the House.

But Bolger, who decides which bills come up for a vote on the floor, has said he only supports Foster's bill to add sexual orientation to the anti-discrimination law.

"I know there's enough House Republicans that when given the opportunity to vote on it that we'd be able to pass it out of our chamber," Singh said.

The Elliott-Larsen act of 1976 prohibits discrimination in hiring, firing, housing and public accommodations based on age, race, sex, weight, religion, marital status and other factors.

Emily Dievendorf, executive director of Equality Michigan, has previously said legal protections for gender identity and expression also are needed for gays, lesbians and bisexuals who face everyday discrimination based on their physical appearance, hairstyle, wardrobe or outward appearance.

Dievendorf and others have suggested the LGBT community would rather torpedo the Foster legislation and try to put the issue on the 2016 ballot than get a bill that's not fully inclusive.

The commerce committee heard testimony from business executives in favor of the legislation, while faith-based groups oppose adding gays and lesbians to the protected classes under the civil rights law.

Much of the debate centered on drawing a balance between deeply held religious beliefs and making Michigan a more welcoming state for gays and lesbians. A coalition of big businesses, including Whirlpool, Quicken Loans, Steelcase and Herman Miller, is pushing for inclusion of transgender individuals under the law.

"This bill does not tell a church, a synagogue or a temple what to do," Singh said.

Keith den Hollander, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Michigan, testified in opposition to the legislation that it would enable the "thought police" to punish individuals who believe homosexuality is a sin.

"I don't accept the premise that ... changing the law will change people's hearts," den Hollander said.

David A. Kallman, a Lansing attorney, also testified in opposition. He and den Hollander questioned whether there's a widespread epidemic of gay and lesbian people being fired or denied jobs because of their sexuality.

"People are not being fired for just being gay," Kallman said. "We believe this is a solution searching for a problem."

"These laws are being used to bully and silence individuals acting on their religious conscience," Kallman later added.

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