Susan J. Demas
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Democratic lawmakers announced Monday that for the first time ever, they have bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature for key LGBTQ rights legislation.
The bills would expand Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) by adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. There have been several attempts in previous sessions to pass similar bills, but they’ve failed to gain traction in the GOP-led Legislature.
During a press conference on Monday, Whitmer, Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia), Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott and Trans Sistas of Color Project Vice President Jey’nce Poindexter spoke about the various avenues available to expand discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in Michigan, including a ballot petition.
The bills addressing this, Senate Bill 208, which is expected to be introduced by Moss this week, and House Bill 4297, introduced by Pohutsky last month, both have Republican co-sponsors on the bills.
In the past when similar bills have been introduced, Republican senators have not been co-sponsors. In 2019, state Rep. Tommy Brann (R-Wyoming) was the lone Republican to co-sponsor House Bill 4688, which languished in the Government Operations Committee.
Brann is once again joining Democrats as a co-sponsor on the current legislation. Sen. Wayne Schmidt (R-Traverse City) has signed onto the Senate version.
“For the first time, this package has bipartisan support in both chambers of the Legislature,” Pohutsky said. “Ensuring that each and every Michigan resident has equal protection under the law is not a partisan issue — it is a reflection of our values. An overwhelming majority is calling for this change, and it is time that our laws reflect the will of the people.”
A June 2019 poll, conducted by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group, found that 74% of Michigan voters would either “strongly” or “somewhat” support the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, including a majority of individuals polled who identify as “lean GOP” or “strong GOP.”
Moss and Pohutsky both said that they have enough support for the legislation to pass, but Republican leaders haven’t spoken up in support or whether they would put it up for a vote.
“I think that leadership has been a little bit more tight-lipped about it, obviously, but … this is going to be dealt with, one way or another,” Pohutsky said during a press conference Monday. “So there are only so many options or opportunities for people to remain quiet on this.”
The other avenue is through the Fair and Equal Michigan ballot initiative, which also aims to ban discrimination in jobs and housing for LGBTQ Michiganders by expanding ELCRA.
Fair and Equal Michigan submitted nearly 500,000 signatures in October — more than the roughly 340,000 required — and is now awaiting certification from the Secretary of State. If the signatures are deemed valid, it’s up to the Legislature to either take it up or pass it on to go before voters on the 2022 ballot.
Poindexter said Fair and Equal Michigan feels “very good that all Michiganders will be able to celebrate this success” after persevering through the challenges that came with canvassing through the pandemic.
“I remember over a year ago sitting up in private offices and private meetings and I was literally told that the efforts of the Fair and Equal Michigan initiative would not go anywhere,” Poindexter said. “It was literally dead on arrival. And here we are, over a year later, with more than enough signatures, with more than enough support all of the Big Three [auto companies] and national businesses weighing in saying the importance of passing this and making sure that all Michiganders feel safe.”
While many businesses have thrown their support behind the pro-LGBTQ rights ballot effort, the Advance asked why there hasn’t been a push from business groups to urge GOP lawmakers to take action on legislation.
“I’ve had those conversations, but, you know, there’s a reckoning for them, as well,” Moss said. “Because this is an opportunity to really display that you don’t just support these endeavors in words, you support them in action.”
Whitmer said expanding workplace protections for LGBTQ Michiganders would make Michigan businesses more competitive nationally.
“Although our country and our state have come a long way on issues of LGBTQ+ rights and discrimination, there are still gaps in the law,” Whitmer said during Monday’s press conference. “Michigan has the opportunity to become a model of equality. Every step we take toward enshrining protections on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation will impact Michiganders for generations to come, to make our state more competitive and welcoming and to show that we are committed to walking on the right side of history.”
Currently, 21 other states and Washington, D.C., offer full protections from discrimination for LGBTQ individuals.
“Extending legal protections to LGBTQ Michiganders is a matter of basic fairness and justice. The time is right to bring Michigan’s critically important civil rights laws into the modern age and to make it clear that discrimination against LGBTQ people will not be tolerated,” Knott said. “Unfortunately, the Michigan Legislature is the last place where bias is accepted. For 38 years, the Legislature has refused to prohibit discrimination of LGBTQ people. Lawmakers who have refused to take action for equal rights have one final opportunity to be on the right side of history. The citizens have their signatures and time is running out.”
Last month, former state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) resigned as CEO of Southwest Michigan First, after losing support and funding from the city of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo Promise because of Chatfield’s anti-LGBTQ rights record during his time in the Legislature.
Knott said that instance should be seen as a “lightning rod and a wake up call for lawmakers who have long vilified the LGBTQ community.”
“We will no longer tolerate the license to discriminate citing faith,” Knott said. “Lawmakers thinking about opposing equality must think differently or they run the risk of being unemployable when they are termed out of office.”
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