91.7 Ann Arbor/Detroit 104.1 Grand Rapids 91.3 Port Huron 89.7 Lansing 91.1 Flint
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Commentary: Politics and human rights


If you were looking for a quintessential solidly middle-class Michigan suburb, Royal Oak, Michigan might be it. Its 57,000 people are mainly white and solidly middle-class.

The downtown became somewhat of a magnet for the young, and trendy a decade or so ago, and hip twenty-somethings still mingle there with motorcycle bikers and teenage skateboarders on warm summer evenings. But by and large, Royal Oak is average middle-sized suburban homes, built around the baby boom era.

In its history, Royal Oak has produced three nationally famous residents. Father Charles Coughlin, the hate-filled radio priest of the 1930s, whose immense stone tower of a church still stands, somewhat bewilderingly, along Woodward Avenue.

Tom Hayden, the ‘60s radical, co-founder of SDS and sometime husband of Jane Fonda, and Jack Kevorkian—who lived in a succession of shabby apartments—all  left a long time ago, and only Kevorkian is much remembered today.

Once reliably Republican, Royal Oak has become more Democratic as the town’s demographics has changed, and as social issue conservatives came to dominate and drive moderates away from the GOP.

A dozen years ago, the city was torn over a civil rights ordinance that would have protected gays and lesbians against employment discrimination. After an intensely bitter campaign, the citizens rejected it by 2-to-1.

But times have changed. Same-sex marriage is now legal in a number of states, and Michigan’s law against it may be struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. At least 20 Michigan towns, including mostly Republican Traverse City have human rights ordinances similar to the one rejected years ago in Royal Oak.

This winter, Royal Oak commissioners adopted a human right ordinance that not only bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, but also on the basis of weight, pregnancy, family responsibilities or a whole host of other factors. Ann Arbor has a near-identical ordinance.

There are still social conservatives in Royal Oak, however, and last week opponents showed up with enough signatures to force the city commission to reconsider the issue.

That means that a week from today, the city has to decide whether to forget about broadening human rights, or again put the question on the ballot. Since the commission passed the ordinance 6-to-1, the odds are it is headed for another citywide vote.

Jim Ellison, Royal Oak’s mayor for a decade, stoutly backs the human rights ordinance, and says “the majority shouldn’t be voting on the rights of the minority,” since protecting the rights of minorities is what the Constitution was designed to do.

But the leader of the opposition, a man in his late ‘70s named Fred Birchard, says he opposes giving “special rights” to gays and lesbians, and bitterly opposes same-sex marriage. What finally happens here may be a better litmus test of true public sentiment than in other places that have passed similar ordinances. Most of those are culturally liberal enclaves.

But Royal Oak really is Main Street -- Michigan at least, if not USA. My guess is that we can expect to hear a lot more about this in the months ahead.

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.

Related Content