Snyder makes rare visit to civil rights panel

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
Governor Rick Snyder addresses the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday.  It was the first time in 51 years that a sitting governor addressed the commission.


— Gov. Rick Snyder made a rare appearance Monday before the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, but said little about the unsettled debate over banning discrimination against gays and lesbians.

The Republican governor's remarks on issues affecting minorities came less than a week after he called on lawmakers to continue debating the addition of gays and lesbians to the state's anti-discrimination statue — a top priority of the civil rights commission.

But Snyder did not mention the simmering issue of expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act until prompted by one of the commissioners.

"Discrimination isn't right," Snyder said. "There was limited discussion in the last part of the last legislative session, but it's a very important topic."

Last month, a Republican-sponsored bill banning discrimination because of a person's sexual orientation fizzled after GOP leaders tied its passage to a religious liberties bill. Critics charged the religious liberty bill would have given people a legal license to discriminate against gays and lesbians by citing their deeply held beliefs.

Democrats also refused to vote for the bill because it didn't contain specific protections for transgender people by adding gender identity and expression to the list of protected classifications, such as race, age, weight and religion.

Snyder has asked lawmakers to continue debating the issue, but he has not publicly called for a bill to land on his desk.

Emily Dievendorf, executive director of the gay rights advocacy group Equality Michigan, was at the commission meeting Monday afternoon and expressed frustration with Snyder's renewed interest in extending the civil rights law to include the LGBT community.

"I don't want all of this just to be talk in order to repair a reputation," Dievendorf said. "I think the reputation of the Republican Party and Republican leadership is damaged after last legislative session."

Dievendorf and others in Michigan's gay rights movement are skeptical Snyder can get a new Republican-controlled Legislature stocked with more conservative freshmen House members to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Leslee Fritz, deputy director of the state Civil Rights Department, is optimistic Snyder and lawmakers can work toward ending discrimination to a class of individuals left out of the 1976 civil rights law.

"Discrimination is wrong, and I don't know if I've ever heard anybody say anything different," Fritz said. "And that's a starting point that all of us start from and ought to be the guiding principal."

Snyder's brief remarks to the commission were focused on getting more migrant workers to harvest Michigan crops, encouraging immigration, promoting Native American history and helping the disabled.

Commissioner Linda Lee Tarver, who is minority vice chairwoman of the Michigan Republican Party, asked Snyder whether he would support the creation of a state commission for African-Americans.

Snyder said he was "surprised" to learn there's not already a panel "when you think about it in the context of the history of our state and the importance of the community."

"I think it's a good question to ask in terms of why don't we have an African-American commission?" Snyder said.

The state's other commissions for ethnic minorities include the Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission and the Hispanic/Latino Commission of Michigan.

Snyder told Tarver he would consider creating the commission through an executive order or asking the Legislature to send him a bill establishing a commission. The governor also voiced support for a state commission focused on Michigan's large Arab and Chaldean populations. The state currently has an advisory council for that group.

In the civil rights commission's 51 years of existence, former Gov. George Romney is the only known sitting governor to have appeared before the commission, said Vicki Levengood, spokeswoman the civil rights department.

"Hopefully it won't be 50 years until the next governor comes," commission Chairman Arthur M. Horwitz told Snyder.

(517) 371-3660