Jacques: Mich. lawmakers shouldn’t pick LGBT fight

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan’s Board of Education has created a stir with its proposed guidelines for how schools should treat gay and transgender students and make them feel safe — even if that means cutting out parents.

These guidelines are backfiring on the Democratic-controlled board by spurring annoyed Republican lawmakers to write legislation that would preempt some of their policies from taking effect.

The State Board went too far with its proposals, but lawmakers shouldn’t respond by going too far in the other direction.

Parents expressed their concern about how the policy removes them from the discussion and gives students wide freedom to make decisions about their gender and behavior at school.

Nearly 9,000 parents and citizens have commented on the proposal in an online forum. Given the outpouring, the board has extended the time frame for public comments to May 11, and will likely vote on the guidelines later this summer.

Much of the angst centers on giving transgender or gender nonconforming students the choice — apart from parental consultation — of how to identify at school, including bathrooms and locker rooms to use.

Legislative leaders, including House Speaker Kevin Cotter, R-Mount Pleasant, have issued strong statements against the board’s draft document.

Sen. Tom Casperson, R-Escanaba, is taking further action. He plans to introduce a bill that would block some of the state board’s policies, as well as a resolution to call on the board to rescind its recommendations altogether.

“It wasn’t a fight we were looking for,” says Marty Fittante, Casperson’s chief of staff. “But the real concern is that parents are cut out of the process.”

Casperson’s bill would require students to use bathrooms and locker rooms that “match their birth gender.”

“It is hard to believe that a state board, which is clearly out of touch with Michigan residents, got assistance from equally out of touch, unelected bureaucrats to develop such a document to fundamentally change Michigan’s public education system without the public’s prior knowledge or consent,” Casperson said in a statement.

Board President John Austin, who spearheaded the LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning) policy, has said Republicans who want to restrict bathroom use for transgender students could put the state in violation of federal civil rights laws, including Title IX. That means federal education dollars could be at risk.

The U.S. Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights enforces Title IX, which aims to end gender discrimination in schools — and includes protection of transgender students.

Casperson plans to include a caveat for students who do not identify with their birth gender. If the student has written consent from a parent or guardian, the student would be able to use a single-occupancy restroom or staff facility.

Even with some sort of accommodation, the bill could open the state to lawsuits. This is what’s playing out in North Carolina, which recently passed a law that makes it illegal for people to use a bathroom that doesn’t match the sex on their birth certificate and bans anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender people.

Now that state is facing lawsuits and backlash from businesses and entertainers. In response, North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, a Republican, issued an executive order Tuesday that softened the new law by expanding some protections, but kept the bathroom ordinance in place.

Michigan lawmakers should take a cue from Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who said last weekend he probably wouldn’t have signed the North Carolina law.

“Everybody needs to take a deep breath, respect one another, and the minute we start trying to write laws, things become more polarized, they become more complicated,” the GOP presidential contender said on “Face the Nation.”

Legislation isn’t the answer. But the State Board must listen to the concerns of families before it votes on a final policy.