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Commentary

Senator Warren’s bill reminds me of Harry Truman’s "do-nothing Congress" move

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State Senator Rebekah Warren, D-Ann Arbor, looks absolutely nothing like Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. Yet yesterday, when Warren introduced legislation to amend Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, he instantly came to mind.

And here’s why: Many people, especially the LGBT community and their allies, were excited when, with considerable fanfare, Warren introduced her bill. SB 1053 would make it illegal for anyone hiring employees or providing housing to discriminate against anyone based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Identity, or expression. Her bill, as I understand it, would also make it illegal to refuse to hire or sell or serve or rent to anyone because you don’t like the way they dress or define themselves.

The bad news, for those who believe in those rights, is that this bill is never going to pass, not this year, anyway.

And Rebekah Warren knows that very well. Republicans control the Legislature, and they are heavily dependent on the religious right, much of which does not believe in anyone’s right to be gay.

Rebekah Warren knows that public opinion has now moved ahead of the Republicans on gay rights, especially those in the Michigan Legislature.

Yesterday, Speaker of the House JaseBolger said that while he personally doesn’t support discrimination, he doesn’t think anyone should be “forced to violate his or her religious beliefs.”

In other words, though few Republicans say this openly, they’d only support saying you can’t discriminate against gay people … unless you believe you should for so-called religious reasons, which would make any civil rights bill a joke.

Actually, as Warren herself pointed out, introducing any kind of religious exemption would be highly dangerous.

As she said, “There’s no possible way to do that kind of an amendment in Elliott-Larsen that wouldn’t apply to every category.”

You might open the door to using religion to discriminate against women or people of color.

Democrats will never accept that, Republicans won’t even think about changing the law otherwise, which means Warren’s bill is going nowhere.

So what does this have to do with old Harry Truman?

Just this: 66 years ago, he was running for reelection, hopelessly behind in the polls. Republicans controlled both houses of Congress, and their platform called for sweeping changes.

Fine, he said during the campaign. He called Congress back into session and dared them to enact their own program.

He knew they were divided. They passed nothing, which enabled him to run against “the do-nothing Congress.”

Not only was Truman reelected in a stunning upset, the Democrats won control of Congress.

Rebekah Warren knows that public opinion has now moved ahead of the Republicans on gay rights, especially those in the Michigan Legislature. Increasingly, they are out of step with the times, and she’s hoping their refusal to change will highlight this.

Speaker Bolger may not realize that religious discrimination of any kind is de facto unconstitutional, but thanks to term limits, as of New Year’s Day, his political career is probably de facto over. Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville is retiring also.

Rebekah Warren, on the other hand, is certain to be reelected in November. Her shrewd civil rights move here is one of the reasons she may be a force in state politics for a long time to come.  

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Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.

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