Whitmer signs non-discrimination directive in Ferndale

James David Dickson
The Detroit News
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed a non-discrimination edict with the goal of protecting state works from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orienation or gender in Ferndale Jan. 7, 2019.

Ferndale — Announcing intentions to make Michigan a "model of equal opportunity," Gov. Gretchen Whitmer on Monday signed a non-discrimination edict intended to protect state workers from discrimination on the basis of their gender or sexual orientation.

The signing of Whitmer's ninth executive directive took place here at Affirmations, the state's largest LGBTQ community center.

Whitmer singled out Agustin Arbulu, executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights. Arbulu, who attended at the governor's request, presided over the department last May when it made the decision to interpret the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation. 

That interpretation was made almost a year after Equality Michigan requested, in July 2017, an interpretation of "sex" as pertains to the civil rights law's protections against discrimination on the basis of sex. 

Former Attorney General Bill Schuette, Whitmer's gubernatorial opponent, issued a legal opinion at the request of the Legislature that found only lawmakers could make that call. 

"Learning what was in it, I was very excited," Arbulu said of the Whitmer directive. "I was excited to see the bold leadership in moving our state forward. We need those steps."

Whitmer's seven-page directive covers equal employment, extending protections to those employed by companies receiving grants, loans or doing contract business with the state, banning discrimination in the provision of services, and outlining the pat to implementation. It sets internal policy for the state's departments and agencies.

The directive requires that "each director of a principal state department and head of an autonomous agency" under the governor's purview must designate an equity and inclusion officer, who will "engage in proactive efforts to educate employees" about the directive. The officer would also receive complaints of non-compliance and recommend remedies to department heads. 

While politicians, activists and community leaders present at the signing hailed it as a step in the right direction, Whitmer herself admitted the directive does not "codify" protections for all Michiganians the same way a law would. Whitmer said she hoped the Legislature would work to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to officially ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. 

Whitmer first visited Affirmations during her successful gubernatorial campaign, urged by then-candidate, now-state Sen. Jeremy Moss, of Southfield, whose district covers Ferndale. Moss joked that he knew Whitmer would be back to Affirmations — he just didn't know she'd be back seven days into the job. The speed of the directive was necessary, Whitmer said, as Michigan seeks to get on the "right side of history."

"State government must be a model of equal opportunity... treating everyone fairly and dispelling prejudices," Whitmer said. 

That the signing took place in Ferndale was a point of pride for Mayor Dave Coulter, who joked that the Oakland County suburb "(has) a welcome mat at (its) door." In 2006, two years after Michigan voters banned gay marriage and civil unions, Ferndale voters passed a civil rights ordinance that protects the LGBT community specifically. 

"It's a real relief to have a champion in state government like our governor," Coulter said. 

Erin Knott, interim executive director of Equality Michigan, made the trek from Kalamazoo to take part in the signing ceremony.

Speaking briefly during the ceremony, Knott said "it is part of a national trend to guarantee that as many LGBT people are protected as possible." The Legislature should follow Whitmer by taking "immediate, meaningful action" to protect their own employees, Knott said.

Moss said the directive is "not only a moral document, it's a tool" that would help Michigan attract the "best talent."

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is a lesbian, said in a statement that "this action is deeply personal to me," adding that she's 'hopeful that soon our state laws will also reflect the paradigm of equal protection under the law for all Michiganders."

Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II said that "we must continue to build bridges...and public confidence in state government," and that the directive represented a "giant leap in the right direction."

The signing came so early into Whitmer's tenure that members of her team didn't even have business cards printed yet.

As Whitmer took a seat to sign the directive, she joked: "At some point I'll have pens with my name on them."