Jacques: It's job of lawmakers to amend civil rights law

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News
Photos are of officials with the city of Detroit and Motor City Pride during a ceremony to raise the rainbow pride flag in honor of LGBT Pride Month in Hart Plaza, in Detroit, June 6, 2018.

Republican lawmakers and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer had a kumbaya moment on Mackinac Island last week, when the governor signed historic — and long overdue — reforms to the state’s no-fault auto insurance.

While it was refreshing to see bipartisan cooperation on such an important issue, I’m guessing it may be awhile before we see something similar.

Budget debates, including disparate road funding plans, are far from settled.

And now this week, Democratic lawmakers launched an effort to expand the state’s 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is actively behind the legislation.

More:Jacques: Can the bipartisan honeymoon last?

More:Whitmer, lawmakers to push anti-discrimination bill for LGBT community

As she should be. The Legislature is the place to debate and work this out.

The last big push to update the law came in 2014, when a coalition of business groups and former Gov. Rick Snyder advocated for the change. GOP lawmakers were even on board at the time, but the momentum died after a fight over wording of the bill.

Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, speaks about proposed legislation that would expand the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act during a press conference on Tuesday, June 4, 2019 at the state Capitol.

Since then, new crops of Republican lawmakers proved more conservative and less eager to tackle expanding LGBTQ protections.

Current leadership seems to fall into that category. House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, is especially resistant to change the current law over concerns of its impact on religious freedom.

In January, he told me: “Every person deserves equal protection under the law, but no one deserves special protection.”

This week, he said, “My position has not changed.”

Doesn’t sound like there’s much room for negotiation there.

Yet if the Legislature refuses to budge on this, you can bet that Attorney General Dana Nessel will step in to offer her assistance.

Nessel is reviewing a request from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which decided last year it would investigate claims of discrimination against gay and transgender individuals, even though those protections aren’t spelled out in law.

Then-Attorney General Bill Schuette reviewed the decision and said this went beyond the commission’s authority and that it was up to the Legislature to amend the act. Yet that hasn’t stopped the commission from continuing its investigations.

The matter has been before Nessel since February, and her spokeswoman, Kelly Rossman McKinney, says it’s still in review but that her opinion should be out in a few weeks.

Nessel has already made it clear how she feels on the issue.

Last summer, when GOP lawmakers, including former House Speaker Tom Leonard, requested Schuette intervene in the Civil Rights Commission’s decision, Nessel (then a candidate for her office) tweeted:

“Bill Schuette and Tom Leonard continue to demonstrate why they shouldn’t be anywhere near our executive offices. We need an Attorney General who stand up and protect ALL Michigan residents, including the LGBTQ community.”

Whitmer says if the Legislature punts on this, then it’s likely a citizen-led ballot initiative would follow. A similar proposal called Fair Michigan was floated in 2015, but it quickly dissipated after prominent members of the LGBTQ community opposed bringing the issue before voters.

Also expect Nessel to throw her support behind commission’s expansion of the law -- something that is far outside the bounds of its jurisdiction.

Regardless how tough the fight, lawmakers are the ones who must revisit Elliott-Larsen.