Chatfield will support expanding civil rights protections in new post

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — Former Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield, a Republican who's the new leader of a southwest Michigan economic development organization, says he will support expanding the state's civil rights act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Over the past week, Southwest Michigan First, the group that hired Chatfield as CEO has faced public criticism from advocates for the civil right protections as the former Republican lawmaker had previously spoken out against the reform.

In a Thursday statement, Chatfield said the Southwest Michigan First board voted in 2017 to support amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

Michigan House Speaker Lee Chatfield addresses the crowd before President Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Muskegon County Airport in Muskegon on Oct.17, 2020.

"Those are the values of this company, and as CEO, I support those values and the effort," Chatfield said.

His stance was first reported by West Michigan's Fox 17.

Southwest Michigan First announced Feb. 11 that its new CEO is Chatfield, a 32-year-old Republican from Northern Michigan who left office because of term limits at the end of 2020.

Southwest Michigan First is "an organization of privately funded economic development advisers who act as the catalyst for economic growth across the seven counties of Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren," according to a press release.

Over the last week, the City of Kalamazoo decided to stop funding the organization over the hire, and the Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners has considered a similar move.

Erin Knott, a Kalamazoo city commissioner and director of Equality Michigan, called on Southwest Michigan First's leaders, including Chatfield, to demand that the GOP-controlled Legislature expand the state's civil rights law to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity and expression "without a carve-out or exemption of any kind."

As a legislator, Chatfield, who served from 2015-2020, opposed such a proposal without religious exemptions. In 2019, while he was speaker, Chatfield said in a taping of “Off the Record” on WKAR-TV that he didn’t plan to hold a vote during the term on any gay rights legislation.

"I do not believe we can pass this law while still protecting religious freedom," Chatfield said on the TV show. "You’ve seen these laws passed in other states where what happens, in my opinion, is a reverse discrimination against those who have religious beliefs."

On Thursday, Knott said it was encouraging to learn Chatfield intends to support an amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity in his new role.

"While Mr. Chatfield is no longer a lawmaker, as CEO he is a policy and opinion leader and it is critical that he understands the central importance of attracting and retaining talent to support our region's world class businesses and institutions and the role inclusion plays in those efforts," Knott said. "This is essential to the job Mr. Chatfield was hired to do, and it is incumbent for someone in his position to clearly state what it is he's supporting or not supporting."

Southwest Michigan First's previous CEO, Ron Kitchens, made $720,814 in total compensation in 2018, according to a federal tax filing.

cmauger@detroitnews.com