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Court to hear arguments on whether civil rights law covers LGBTQ people

Michigan Supreme Court
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The Michigan Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on whether the state’s civil rights law protects LGBTQ people against discrimination, even though the Legislature has never specifically enumerated that in the statute.

At issue is a 2018 Michigan Civil Rights Commission interpretation of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. It says the state law protects LGBTQ people from discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodation. And that’s because the law includes the word “sex.”

“It’s not a long jump for the court to find that our Elliott-Larsen, which prohibits discrimination not only in employment, but housing and education and public accommodation, does protect LGBT people from discrimination in those areas,” said attorney Jay Kaplan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, which is a party to the case.

“It’s a pivotal moment in what has been a very long fight to ensure Michigan’s LGBT community is protected from discrimination,” said Vicki Levengood with the state civil rights department.

Levengood said that position is also backed by federal court rulings, including a U.S. Supreme Court decision.
A wedding venue and an electrolysis clinic are challenging the commission’s action. The owners say the commission’s determination would force them to violate their religious beliefs. And they say the interpretation doesn’t matter because the Legislature never voted to expand the state civil rights law to include LGBTQ protections.

“Our position is very clear,” said attorney David Kallman. “The civil rights commission is an un-elected body that does not have the authority to amend the state law, and they can’t unilaterally on their own change state law to add a protected class to state civil rights laws.”

The Republican-controlled Legislature has refused to expand the language of the civil rights law. Last year, Governor Gretchen Whitmer endorsed a legislative effort to enshrine LGBTQ protections in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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