Attorney General Dana Nessel speaks at the Michigan Pride rally in Lansing on June 26, 2022. | Photo by Andrew Roth
A Catholic organization’s attempts to insert language around “civil protections for religious organizations” into a bill that would expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) are essentially dead on arrival and will not be incorporated into the bill or prevent the legislation from moving forward, said the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield).
“This is not going to be a big fight; this isn’t going to be a fight at all,” Moss said in an interview Wednesday with the Advance about the Michigan Catholic Conference’s (MCC) proposal to lawmakers to amend Senate Bill 4.
The Michigan Senate Committee on Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety last week took testimony on the bill that would extend protections for LGBTQ+ people. The panel is set to meet at noon Thursday to hear additional testimony.
Currently, the state’s civil rights act, first signed into law in 1977, prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations and services based on religion, race, skin color, national origin, age, height, weight, familial status, and marital status.
Democratic lawmakers — who now control the state House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years — want to revise the act so it would codify into law protections against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
The Lansing-based MCC is pushing proposed amendments to the bill that would “include protections — particularly for those in society who have sincere and long-standing beliefs that marriage is between a man and a woman,” Thomas Hickson, the group’s vice president for public policy and advocacy, said in a statement sent to the Advance Wednesday evening.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriages are legal.
The proposed changes, which Democratic sponsors of the bill emphasized will not be included in the bill, would allow a wide and what critics say is a vaguely worded swath of religious people and organizations — such as “any persons acting in accordance with their religion” — to be exempt from portions of the act, including with regards to sexual orientation and gender identity. In other words, based on the language the MCC is proposing, religious groups could discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as sex in general, and not face legal consequences, civil rights advocates said.
The MCC’s proposed changes also include removing protections for transgender people by narrowing the definition of “sex” to meaning “the biological difference between males and females at birth.”
“They would gut civil rights protections,” Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBTQ+ Project, said of the MCC’s proposed amendments.
“What they’re proposing is … an incredibly broad-based license to discriminate in the name of religion,” Kaplan added.
The changes being pushed by the MCC are what’s known as a “religious freedom restoration act” (RFRA) amendment, Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said. Knott argued that these kinds of changes allow religious beliefs to be used as an excuse to violate the rights of others. For example, under this proposed language, pharmacies could turn away people seeking to fill prescriptions for HIV treatment and social workers could refuse to counsel LGBTQ+ clients, Knott said.
“You have a large and powerful entity that is proposing broad-based discrimination against a targeted group of people,” Knott said of the MCC.
Knott added that the proposed change to the definition of sex “would dramatically reduce Michigan residents’ protections against sex discrimination and would be a huge setback for women and all Michigan residents.”
Protections for religious people and groups, and specifically for those who believe “marriage is between a man and a woman,” make for “good public policy,” Hickson said in his prepared statement.
“There are reasonable amendments that can be included in [Senate Bill 4] to protect and uphold federal civil rights protections for religious organizations,” Hickson said.
A report filed in 2021 with the Secretary of State showed that the MCC spent more than $200,000 funding a group opposing a ballot measure to expand the non-discrimination act to LGBTQ+ people. That effort fell short on signatures and didn’t make the ballot.
In 2022, the MCC was part of a coalition opposing Proposal 3, which enshrined abortion rights in Michigan’s Constitution. That measure passed. At least $57 million was spent in efforts for and against the proposal.
Hickson noted the group’s proposed language on SB 4 is in a stage that is a “starting point for discussion.”
Moss said that lawmakers “can hear these concerns, but we don’t have to act on them.”
The votes are there to make this a reality, and I think this is a moment not to be fearful of those who are against us. This is a moment for us to promote who we are as a community and how vibrantly we contribute to the fabric of the state of Michigan.
– State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield)
When asked if any of the changes the MCC has suggested would be considered as additions to the legislation, Moss said: “No.”
“As bill sponsor, I’m not putting that language into my bill,” said Moss, the first openly gay senator in the state.
Moss noted that it is routine for lobbyists to push for changes to bills but emphasized that the mere existence of these efforts do not translate to lawmakers entertaining them.
Civil rights advocates concerned about the ramifications of this push by the MCC pointed to past successful attempts by “religious freedom” advocates to kill efforts to expand the state’s civil rights act, as happened in 2014.
That year, House Speaker Jase Bolger (R-Marshall) proposed a RFRA to accompany then-bipartisan legislation to expand the ELCRA. On Tuesday, state Rep. Andrew Fink (R-Hillsdale) proposed a bill that includes languages specifying it “may be cited as the ‘Michigan religious freedom restoration act.” House Bill 4075, which was introduced on Tuesday and currently only has Fink as a sponsor, aims to “limit governmental action that substantially burdens a person’s exercise of religion.”
However, Moss noted, his bill to expand the ELCRA comes at a time when the Legislature is dramatically different than it was in 2014: Democrats, for the first time in nearly 40 years, control the state House, Senate and governorship.
“Obviously, we’re in a very different political environment,” Moss said. “Ten years ago, the Republican majority demanded a RFRA to even begin the conversation [around expanding the civil rights act]. Now we have 20 Democratic sponsors. We’re in a new majority. This changes the dynamics. There’s no lobbying to be had on this issue.”
What they’re proposing is … an incredibly broad-based license to discriminate in the name of religion.
– Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBTQ+ Project
If the MCC’s changes were to be included in the legislation, the group would need to convince lawmakers to do so. Moss said there’s zero chance of that happening and noted the support for the bill from the legislation’s 20 Democratic sponsors, as well as from Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — whose statement that “bigotry is bad for business,” a reference to expanding ELCRA, received a standing ovation at her State of the State address in January.
Earlier this week, Whitmer told the Advance that signing the bill to expand the civil rights act would “mean a tremendous amount” to her.
“It’s something that we’ve wanted to get done,” she said. “… And as a governor who’s trying to make sure that our economy is strong and we are a competitive state, I recognize how important this is to afford all people, no matter who they are, who they love, or how they identify, protection and respect under the law. And as a parent, this is something that I am very, very much looking forward to signing.”
A long list of business organizations have also expressed their support for Moss’s bill. On Thursday, business leaders are expected to testify in favor of expanding the civil rights act at the Michigan Senate Committee on Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety’s second hearing on the bill.
As far as protections for religious individuals and groups, lawmakers and civil rights advocates emphasized those already exist in abundance.
“There are already a lot of protections in place around religious freedom,” said committee Chair Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit).
Knott also noted this, saying federal law and the Michigan and United States constitutions provide extensive protections for religious organizations. She also emphasized that the Supreme Court concluded in 1968 that Americans have a “constitutional right to espouse the religious beliefs of their own choosing, however they do not have the absolute right to exercise and practice such beliefs in utter disregard of the clear constitutional rights of other citizens.”
RFRAs, however, fly in the face of that 1968 decision, Knott and Kaplan argued
“We have religious freedom, but our constitution, our courts, have never said religion can be a sword to harm other people,” Kaplan said.
Moss expressed frustration that “the conversation around Elliott-Larsen too often pits religious people against LGBTQ people.”
“I reject that,” he said. “I’m a religious person. It’s a very important part of my upbringing, my morals, my values, and my identity as a Jewish person. I do not see a conflict between my religious values and my identity as a gay person. Neither does the institution of my religion see those as conflicts.”
The MCC’s proposed changes to the ELCRA bill, however, would be the sword that Kaplan described, civil rights advocates said. Even the mention of that sword, let alone seeing it in action, is deeply harmful to a community that has long been the target of right-wing vitriol and hate, civil rights leaders said.
In recent years, the LGBTQ+ population has faced a flurry of anti-LGBTQ+ bills sponsored by Republicans nationwide — including a skyrocketing amount of legislation attacking transgender youth. This onslaught of anti-transgender legislation coincided with what the Human Rights Campaign called “an epidemic of violence” against transgender and gender-nonconforming people in 2022.
Additionally, far-right Republicans have throughout the year launched attacks on transgender and gay rights across the state and country, including Michigan lawmakers equating LGBTQ+ people with pedophiles and high-profile Republican candidates, such as failed 2022 gubernatorial nominee Tudor Dixon, verbally attacking transgender youth and their families during their campaigns.
We have religious freedom, but our Constitution, our courts, have never said religion can be a sword to harm other people.
– Jay Kaplan, the staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBTQ+ Project
The MCC’s proposal, civil rights advocates said, adds fuel to this fire.
“It inflames those extremist groups we saw coming together around last year’s election that are still organized, that are going to school board meetings and circulating the latest and greatest opt-outs [to schools’ sexual education programs],” Knott said. “It’s all interconnected. It adds fuel to the fire as it relates to extremist groups that are using the LGBTQ community as an organizing tactic to fire up their base.”
That, Knott said, has real-life consequences. It’s something Equality Michigan sees “in our Department of Victim Services in the amount of calls we get from people needing help,” especially from LGBTQ youth who are being bullied, Knott said.
“I don’t believe the MCC introduced or proposed this amendment outside of anything other than baking in these discrimination clauses … but it legitimizes, in my opinion, some of the gross attacks on our community, particularly our LGBTQ youth,” she said.
It is those kinds of attacks that this bill aims to stop, Moss said.
“We need to shake ourselves of this notion that this bill is primed for defeat; it’s not,” he said. “It has 20 Democratic co-sponsors. I’m optimistic that it can gain Republican support as well. …The votes are there to make this a reality, and I think this is a moment not to be fearful of those who are against us. This is a moment for us to promote who we are as a community and how vibrantly we contribute to the fabric of the state of Michigan.”
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