Jacques: Gay rights outcome irks business backers

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

This time, you can't blame Republicans.

In what would have been a landmark victory, backers of extending civil rights protections to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals had lined up the GOP votes it needed in the lame-duck session to add sexual orientation to the state's 38-year-old Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

But Democrats refused to play along. The sticking point came down to semantics.

Republicans agreed to add just two words — sexual orientation — to the act, believing it could be stretched to cover all interest groups. But the ACLU of Michigan, Equality Michigan and others wouldn't even consider legislation that didn't specifically name transgender individuals, along with gays and lesbians. They convinced Democrats it was an unacceptable bill and blocked their votes.

So rather than be satisfied with a historic expansion of Elliott-Larsen, the groups decided since they weren't getting exactly what they demanded, they'd rather have nothing at all.

"The far left killed it," says one of the leading business backers of the legislation. "They are worse than the tea party."

The Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, a group of 60 businesses and organizations, formed earlier this year and began cultivating GOP support for inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity into the civil rights law. It was a long shot, but intense business lobbying moved significant Republican votes.

The coalition would have liked both sexual orientation and gender identity included, but business members would have settled for just sexual orientation.

GOP leaders, including House Speaker Jase Bolger, believed adding transgender individuals specifically was unnecessary since "sex" is already included under the law's original protections.

Instead of compromising on the wording, Democrats walked away from the legislation and the best hope they had of expanding Elliott-Larsen.

Bolger was willing to go along with the expansion as long as he could make protection of religious freedom a central part of the gay rights discussion.

"We need to respect our differences and not persecute people for what they believe," Bolger said recently.

His solution was a bill protecting religious freedom, intended to pair with the one from Rep. Frank Foster, R-Petoskey, adding sexual orientation to the civil rights law. Foster lost a primary challenge to a tea party candidate largely because of his support of gay rights.

Bolger modeled his bill after the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act. That law was front and center earlier this year in the Hobby Lobby case, when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the business owners' religious rights in their decision not to offer employees certain kinds of birth control in insurance plans. Bolger wanted similar protections for Michigan citizens. He said he wouldn't support Foster's bill unless his bill moved through the Legislature as well.

But here's the rub: The two pieces of legislation aren't tie-barred, meaning that even though Foster's bill isn't going anywhere, Bolger's bill is still likely to move through the conservative Legislature.

So the left, because of its stubbornness, is getting something it didn't want (additional religious protections) and abandoning what it has said it wanted so badly.

This was the window to address the issue. Starting next year, when House Speaker-elect Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, takes over, there's little chance of getting a vote on Elliott-Larsen legislation. Cotter has signaled he's no fan of enshrining gay rights in law.

Earlier this fall, Mel Larsen, one of the original sponsors of Michigan's 1976 Elliott-Larsen law, predicted the arguments over gender identity could become problematic. Larsen, a Republican who supports including gays in the law, had encouraged a healthy debate and was hopeful lawmakers could strike a compromise.

But Democrats never gave an inch.

"They shot themselves in the foot," says a business member of the coalition.

Ingrid Jacques is deputy editorial page editor of The Detroit News.