West Michigan biz leaders cheer Whitmer’s LGBTQ rights push

By: - February 13, 2019 11:26 pm

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Several members of West Michigan’s famously conservative business community are on board with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s call in her State of the State address for expanded LGBTQ protections.

Gretchen Whitmer at GRCC’s tech campus, Feb. 13, 2019 | Nick Manes

It’s legislative Republicans who continue to oppose the move.

Speaking before almost 400 people in Grand Rapids on Wednesday morning, just 12 hours after finishing her speech to the Legislature, Whitmer reiterated her call to expand the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which lacks explicit discrimination protections for those identifying as LGBTQ. In doing so, she received accolades from several attendees.

She was kicking off her “Home of Opportunity” tour around the state, starting in Grand Rapids, where she also toured a local community college.

Whitmer told the crowd that the GOP-led Legislature’s refusal to take up the matter is “hurting our ability to compete. It’s hurting the ability of Michiganders to ensure that they are protected and respected under the law.

“I want to expand [Elliott-Larsen] and help to protect everyone in our state and I need your help to do that,” Whitmer said to applause.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer gets ready to begin her first State of the State address | Casey Hull

The state’s 1976 civil rights law criminalized discrimination in jobs and housing on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status and marital status. 

A new report by the Human Rights Campaign Foundation and Equality Federation found that Michigan ranks among the bottom 28 states for LGBTQ rights.

However, both Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have said bluntly that expanding the law to LGBTQ people remains low on the priority list.

Mike Shirkey

“The Senate doesn’t have any plans to take up and talk about Elliott-Larsen because we have far more higher-level responsibilities and problems to solve and this one, we shouldn’t get caught up in the noise of it,” Shirkey told Michigan Radio last night following Whitmer’s speech.

Chatfield has said he doesn’t believe there’s much discrimination happening against the LGBTQ population, although the ACLU of Michigan has defended multiple cases alleging just that.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission last year said that Elliott-Larsen does includes sexual orientation and gender identity. The Michigan Department on Civil Rights has investigated 13 complaints of discrimination in those areas.

The speaker said he also fears that expanding the civil rights law could undermine religious freedom.

“Personally, I don’t believe people should be discriminated against. But at the same time, I’m never going to endorse a law or allow a bill to come for a vote that I believe infringes on someone’s ability to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs,” Chatfield said last month on WKAR-TV, as the Advance reported.

Lee Chatfield

West Michigan’s corporate support for greater equality and protections dates back several years. Several of the region’s largest employers like Herman Miller and Steelcase maintain perfect scores on the Corporate Equality Index from the LGBTQ rights group Human Rights Campaign.

Business groups like the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce have voiced support for expanding Elliott-Larsen — and lobbyist Andy Johnston did so again after Whitmer’s address. So has The Right Place Inc., a regional business and economic development organization that hosted Whitmer’s Wednesday morning speech.

The Grand Rapids Chamber, however, did find itself in a firestorm last year just before Whitmer’s election. The business advocacy and lobbying group’s political action committee (PAC) endorsed her opponent, Republican former Attorney General Bill Schuette.

As attorney general, Schuette authored an opinion last year determining that the Michigan Civil Rights Commission exceeded its authority in granting protections around gender identity and sexual orientation. His successor, Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel, is expected to weigh in soon at the commission’s request.

Bill Schuette

The chamber’s endorsement of Schuette, while maintaining its support for LGBTQ rights, resulted in a large and extended backlash from several people and companies in the West Michigan business community.

Whitmer also stopped by Grand Rapids Community College’s Leslie E. Tassell M-TEC campus, where workforce development programs are housed.

In addition to using a “virtual welder” training machine — bought by the school using state funds during the tenure of former Gov. Rick Snyder — Whitmer used the stop to further tout her plans to offer free community college, unveiled during State of the State.

Snyder proposed a similar plan in 2017, which never came to fruition. That initiative was estimated to cost around $400 million annually, according to reports. As Senate minority leader, Whitmer proposed in 2013 the Michigan 2020 plan for free college. That plan also failed to gain traction.

Whitmer demurred on Wednesday to give a cost estimate on her proposal, saying, “This is something that I think is a small investment compared to everything else that state government does [and it] has the potential of enormous returns.”

Gretchen Whitmer at GRCC’s tech campus, Feb. 13, 2019 | Nick Manes

She added that her budget proposal next month will offer hard numbers.  

Whitmer’s stated goals of increasing protections for LGBTQs, fixing infrastructure and focusing on workforce development align with the priorities of West Michigan’s business community, said Birgit Klohs, Right Place president and CEO.

“Her vision is a lot of the things that we’re talking about for economic development in West Michigan,” Klohs said.

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Nick Manes
Nick Manes

Nick Manes is a former Michigan Advance reporter, covering West Michigan, business and labor, health care and the safety net. He previously spent six years as a reporter at MiBiz covering commercial real estate, economic development and all manner of public policy at the local and state levels.