Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson attends the Senate’s Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee hearing on a bill that would expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act on Feb. 9, 2023. | Photo by Anna Gustafson
“This is historic,” state Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said Thursday afternoon as he stood in a room where, just minutes earlier, lawmakers on the Senate’s Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety Committee passed his bill that would expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) and prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.
It was a vote buoyed by decades of advocates championing the rights of LGBTQ+ people who have, for years, remained unprotected under state law, Moss said.
Since ELCRA was signed into law in 1977, LGBTQ+ advocates have poured their lives into broadening the act as they were left to navigate a world often openly hostile to them, from employers firing people because they were gay or transgender to anti-LGBTQ+ hatred and vitriol — including from GOP politicians who ran for office in November’s election — prompting people to flee the state and never return, supporters of Moss’s bill said.
“I’m really overwhelmed,” Moss said following the 5-1 vote to pass Senate Bill 4 out of committee, paving the way for a vote by the full Senate and, ultimately, for the chance to be signed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer — a longtime and ardent supporter of expanding the civil rights act.
“There’s 50 years of advocates that we’re taking with us,” continued Moss, the state’s first openly gay senator. “There are so many people who have suffered for lack of recognition in this 50-year-old civil rights law…People who have lost their jobs, people who have been kicked out of places because of who they are and how they identify — essentially who have been kicked out of this state as workers and consumers…That’s decades of people who have not been able to live a true and complete life here in Michigan.”
The five Democratic senators on the committee voted in favor of the bill: Chair Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) and Sens. Sue Shink (D-Northfield Twp.), Paul Wojno (D-Warren), Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) and Sylvia Santana (D-Detroit). One Republican voted against it, Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake), and one Republican, Sen. Ruth Johnson (R-Groveland Twp.), passed on the vote.
Now, as Democrats helm the state House and Senate for the first time in nearly 40 years, the Legislature is, Moss said, poised to provide protections that civil rights advocates say send a clear and strong message: All are welcome in Michigan. And those who think otherwise — who think they can discriminate against someone because of their sexual orientation or gender identity — are set to face a new, and inclusive, reality, the legislation’s supporters said.
“This is about the fundamental values of being American — ensuring dignity for our people, ensuring equality, ensuring fairness,” Human Rights Campaign President Kelley Robinson said following Tuesday’s hearing in the home of the state Senate, the Binsfeld Office Building.
“Being here in this space also shows the rest of the country what’s possible,” Robinson added. “There are still 29 states that don’t have non-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people in this country. Michigan isn’t going to be one of them for very much longer.”
Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott said in an interview following the vote that the legislators’ approval paves the way for a radically different Michigan.
“At Equality Michigan, our Department of Victim Services gets calls from members of the LGBTQ community on a daily basis that are experiencing some form of discrimination, harassment or a horrific act of violence,” Knott said. “Today’s vote sends a message to the LGBTQ community that they are valued, that they are loved and that discrimination will not be tolerated anymore.”
During Thursday’s hearing, the overwhelming majority of those who spoke were in favor of expanding the state’s civil rights act.
The testimony from those representing about 17 businesses across Michigan comes on the heels of last week’s committee hearing that featured LGTBQ+ leaders like Moss and Knott. The heads of such groups and companies as Dow, which is headquartered in Midland; Michigan Realtors; the Michigan Chamber of Commerce; Business Leaders for Michigan; DTE Energy; and Consumers Energy heaped praise on the bill and said the ELCRA expansion is long past due.
Many of the business leaders who spoke also emphasized how personal supporting this bill is for them.
“I’m here both as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and a business owner in Ann Arbor,” said Sandi Smith, the president-elect at Michigan Realtors.
“There was a time not so long ago that we would use the buyers’ initials on offers to purchase to reduce the risk of discrimination,” Smith told lawmakers. “Why should a couple not be able to purchase the home of their dreams because their first names revealed they were a same-sex couple?”
Louis Vega, the president of Dow North America, said his company “unequivocally supports amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.” Vega, who is gay, noted that his company has long provided more support for LGBTQ+ employees than the state government.
“Our employees have more protections and freedoms under Dow policies than they have under state law,” Vega said. “It’s time for that to change.”
Chris Andrus, the owner of the Mitten Brewing Company in Grand Rapids and the co-founder of the advocacy group Small Biz for Equality, spoke of LGBTQ+ employees telling him horror stories of past homophobic and transphobic employers. His longtime general manager, now in her late 50s, “was called a homophobic slur by her manager at a major restaurant chain,” and she “experienced open hostility from coworkers for showing up to work with a vanity license plate that simply said, ‘diversity.’”
“Many of our team members, particularly our transgender ones, came to us after negative experiences with other employers,” he said. “… At past jobs they were asked inappropriate questions about their body by coworkers and management. When they reached out to human resources, they were told to be patient…and to not make such a big deal about it.”
Kim Bode, the founder of 8THIRTYFOUR Integrated Communications in Grand Rapids, told legislators that she “grew up in a really conservative family and then my brother came out as gay.
“School, work, wherever he went he was discriminated against,” Bode said. “He left Michigan 15-plus years ago, and he hasn’t looked back.”
Bode noted that one of her LGBTQ+ employees — “one of the most talented individuals” she’s worked with — will likely leave Michigan if the state doesn’t protect its LGBTQ+ community.
“They’ll move to a state that celebrates and protects them unless we expand the civil rights act,” Bode said.
The few people who testified against the bill did so because they are concerned it does not include language around religious groups being exempt from having to follow the law around not discriminating against people who are LGBTQ+.
Thomas Hickson, of the Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC), said his organization’s “position on this matter is grounded in the longstanding teaching and the belief of the Catholic church, and a number of other religious denominations, that marriage is between a man and a woman.”
As the Advance reported earlier on Thursday, Hickson and the MCC have been pushing lawmakers to change the bill’s language to include “civil protections for religious organizations.” Democratic lawmakers pointed out that ELCRA already includes protections for religious groups, as do the U.S. and Michigan constitutions.Runestad introduced an amendment during the hearing that would have added language around protecting “religious orientation” and “religious identity or expression.” It was defeated 2-5, with the two Republican senators voting for it and the five Democrats voting against it.
The amendment, Runestad said, is about “protecting against discrimination.”
Irwin said the amendment “gets points for creativity” but “gets significant demerits for lack of clarity.”
“It represents a license to discriminate,” Irwin said of Runestad’s amendment. “… That’s what we’ve seen from folks time and time again, from folks who have tried to say that they should have a religious exemption from the law that protects people against discrimination, even though it protects people against religious discrimination. I just think that’s fundamentally wrong.”
Now that the bill has passed out of committee, Moss said he’s expecting the Legislature to soon vote on the legislation.
“I’m optimistic this is going to be a quick movement toward the governor’s desk for her signature,” he said.
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