Berman: Taking a religious holiday from gay rights

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

For a decade, Lansing legislators have balked at the inevitable: creating a law to protect citizens from discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The pressure’s increasing. Some of the state’s biggest business interests have signed up to push the business case for LGBT rights, creating a coalition that includes companies from Grand Rapids (Steelcase and Herman Miller) to Battle Creek (Kellogg) to national players like AT&T, Delta and Google.

In Detroit, Quicken and a batch of law firms including Honigman, Clark Hill and Sam Bernstein & Co. signed on to the effort to broaden the state Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

That’s a 1976 law that’s been amended repeatedly to bar discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on a rainbow of factors — religion, race, color, national origin, sex, age and even height, weight and pregnancy. But LGBT individuals remain excluded from legal protection by the state.

Activists like Emily Dievendorf, who heads Equality Michigan, have been predicting passage of a bill this year. But that’s starting to look iffy, as Speaker of the House Jase Bolger has decided to tie passage of any sexual orientation measure to another bill that offers religious exemptions. He wants to honor those whose religious convictions prohibit them from treating gays and lesbians like anyone else.

Bolger sounds completely sincere: The last thing he wants, he says, is to enable discrimination against an employee, say, on sexual orientation grounds — even though the law allows that.

But he’s ready to keep a sexual orientation bill off the table until he can ensure “a balancing with religious freedom.”

“I am passionate that we don’t judge each other on both sides,” he says. “That we do try to achieve a society that’s live and let live.”

What’s scaring Bolger? He cites a recent case as an alarming precedent. A lesbian couple seeking to legally marry filed a complaint against the owners of Liberty Ridge Farm in upstate New York, a family farm that’s rented out for wedding ceremonies and receptions, birthday parties and other occasions. The farm owners, practicing Catholics, refused — and were fined $13,000 last month for violating New York’s human rights law.

The couple was running a business: The law didn’t let them choose who they could serve. That’s why Rosa Parks took a seat, remember?

Bolger wants to craft a new state law that will enable deeply religious people to live their values. “I don’t want to create a license to discriminate,” he says, with vehemence.

That sounds reasonable, as positions that enable discrimination often do. Reasonable-sounding arguments enabled George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to own slaves. Reasonable-sounding arguments banished women from voting booths and board rooms. They continue to bolster arguments to treat lesbians, gays and transsexuals as second-class citizens.

Victims of discrimination can always find their own drinking fountains, open their own hotels.

Sometimes a perfect balance is impossible. Sometimes you have to make a choice.

And Bolger’s deep sympathy for the aggrieved religious farm owners, rather than the humiliated lesbian couple, is a reminder of how much easier it always is to espouse equality than to change what’s blocking it.