Dem lawmakers say proposed LGBTQ protections have real chance in GOP-led Legislature

Beth LeBlanc
The Detroit News

Democratic lawmakers contened Monday they have enough support in the Republican-controlled Michigan House and Senate to pass long-debated legislation that would enshrine in state law discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals. 

But House and Senate leaders made no commitment on Monday to consider the Democratic-backed legislative proposal.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, and Rep. Laurie Pohutsky, D-Livonia, were joined by Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to announce the most recent attempt to amend the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to clearly prohibit discrimination based on a person's sex, including gender identity or sexual orientation.

The issue is ripe for new consideration by the Legislature, either through the bills that Moss and Pohutsky are proposing or if the Fair and Equal Michigan petition initiative makes its way to lawmakers.

The petition's signatures currently are under review by the Michigan Bureau of Elections ahead of potential certification of the ballot initiative.

"This is the time for reckoning," said Moss, one of the first openly gay members of the Michigan House. "We’re going to have to deal with this in one way, shape or form, either by legislation or by the petitions that are coming to us.”

The landscape surrounding the issue in the Legislature and business world has changed dramatically over the past several years, Pohutsky said. 

"Businesses all across our state have repeatedly declared the expansion would benefit our economy," she said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-3 in June that the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964 protected LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment. But Michigan needs to enshrine similar rights in state law, advocates argued in a press conference Monday.

"We need to continue making Michigan a state where everyone can come to for opportunity and know they will be respected and protected under our laws," Whitmer said.

House Speaker Jason Wentworth's said the House would look at the details of any proposal that is certified by the Board of State Canvassers. The Farwell Republican's office did not comment on the legislative effort. 

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, condemned discrimination in any form in a Monday statement, but he said a "hurdle" continues to exist in "trying to avoid discrimination against some people by allowing discrimination against others."

"It’s conceivable to find a landing spot on this issue but it must include affirming and protecting religious freedoms," he said. "It is this question that will likely determine whether a legislative solution can be reached.”

Advocates have long lobbied to have gender identity and sexual orientation added to the protected categories within the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in order to ensure LGBTQ individuals cannot be denied housing or employment. 

But those efforts have stopped short in the Republican-led Legislature, including under former House Speaker Lee Chatfield, who won his 2014 Republican primary on promises that he would oppose changes to the anti-discrimination law. Last month, Chatfield resigned from a new position as CEO of a southwest Michigan economic development group after criticism and canceled contracts over his past opposition to changes to Elliott-Larsen. 

Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, said Monday that Chatfield's resignation should serve as a "wake-up call" to other politicians considering similar opposition to anti-discrimination rules. 

"We will no longer tolerate the license to discriminate citing faith," Knott said. "Lawmakers thinking about opposing equality must think differently or they run the risk of being unemployable when they are termed out of office."

Sen. Wayne Schmidt, R-Traverse City, and Rep. Tommy Brann, R-Wyoming, are cosponsors of the legislation, said Moss and Pohutsky. Other GOP lawmakers also may lend their support if it is put to a vote by legislative leaders, they said. 

"For the first time, as Sen. Moss mentioned, these bills have bipartisan support in both the House and Senate chambers, providing a clear path forward to enact this legislation,” Pohutsky said.

The legislation is welcome after 38 years of delaying changes to Elliott-Larsen to provide protections based on gender identity and sexual orientation, said Josh Hovey, a spokesman for Fair and Equal Michigan. 

"With the certification of our signatures growing closer by the day, time for them to get this issue done is quickly running out," Hovey said in a statement. "If lawmakers do not get this issue done now, the citizens of this state are prepared to get this issue resolved on next year's ballot.”

In addition, Attorney General Dana Nessel in January asked the state Court of Appeals and Michigan Supreme Court to weigh in on the issue after a lower court affirmed Elliott-Larsen prevented discrimination based on gender identity, but not on sexual orientation. 

The case largely pertains to the Michigan Civil Rights Commission's 2018 interpretation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, an interpretation that concluded the state law's prohibition on discrimination based on sex included discrimination related to someone's gender identity and sexual orientation. Two businesses being investigated by the department based on those interpretations sued to challenge the commission's interpretation.

Nessel's appeals are pending.