Public polling and recent court cases have prompted greater discussion about adding protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people in Michigan’s civil rights law. Advocates for the change say it’s time to stop legally discriminating against LGBT people. Others say changing the law say it would mean people opposed to homosexual behavior would be discriminated against. The issue is beginning to play out in the Michigan legislature.
Michigan’s civil rights law is known as the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act. It prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, family status, and marital status.
Advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and opponents of gay rights have one thing in common: both sides say discrimination should not be allowed. Where they go from there is very different.
LGBT advocates say sexual orientation and gender expression should be included in the Elliot-Larsen protections.
Anti-gay rights advocates say there’s no need for creating special classes of people to be protected.
James Muffett is President of Citizens for Traditional Values. The group’s website describes it as a statewide, pro-family organization. Muffett against expanding Elliot-Larsen to protect LGBT people. He does not believe people are born gay or lesbian. He believes it’s a behavior. He also believes you don’t have to list every type of person to be protected in the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
JM: “Where do you stop the list? Do you put skinny people, you know, can you be fired for being skinny? Redheaded people or people who talk too loud, in other words, once you begin the enumeration process -which we feel like is the wrong way to go- once you do that, where do you stop?"
LG: “Under the Elliot-Larsen Act, your examples of skinny people or people with red hair, you can interpret both of those things as already being protected because you can’t be discriminated against because of your weight, you can’t be discriminated against because of your ethnic background. So, the question is: should U.S. citizens be discriminated against because of who they are? We don’t do that to other groups.”
JM: “Sure. So, discriminatory hiring and firing, you know, is wrong except for -this is a real question and I pose it back to you as a hypothetical- is it right then for the government to force you to fund or pay for something that’s morally reprehensible? And, so, this is a slippery slope down to violating the religious and the conscience rights of those who still hold that homosexuality is not a moral or a good thing for society and marriage specifically. That’s where I feel we’re not talking about that aspect of this debate at all right now. And, I think it’s a big missing part of the equation.”
That is something some Michigan legislators are talking about. Representative Tom McMillin says he would not be in favor of expanding the state’s civil rights protections to include LGBT people.
“If you do that, then you force a photographer who’s a Christian who believes homosexuality is a sin, you force them under the penalty of law to photograph a homosexual wedding. And you would do the same to a baker who doesn’t want to provide a cake to a homosexual wedding. I mean, you just force people to violate their conscience or else face penalty and we’ve seen this in other states. It’s a bad idea. You know, discriminating against Christians is wrong too. And, you know, I don’t think we need to put that into law,” McMillin said.
Representative McMillin has been instrumental in curtailing or attempting to curtail the protections for LGBT people that are already on the books. In the last session of the legislature, he backed a bill that would have banned any local laws that go beyond the Elliot-Larsen protections.
Right now 22 municipalities have prohibited discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people. East Lansing claims to be the first city in the nation to pass laws protecting sexual orientation back in 1972. Nathan Tripplett is the Mayor Pro Tem of East Lansing.
“I was part of an effort involving a number of local officials from across the state to oppose the bill you’re referencing from Representative McMillin. He’s effectively talking about overturning a law in East Lansing that has been on the books for four decades after the considered judgment of our local legislative body was: this is appropriate for East Lansing.”
Tripplett says that bill did not pass, but another made it illegal for local governments to provide benefits to domestic partners of municipal or school employees, effectively ensuring same-sex partners cannot be covered.
“The state has no business whatsoever telling us we shouldn’t do it locally. And, in fact, I think they should be taking a cue from us and the other municipalities that have adopted these protections and saying, ‘We should follow their lead,’ and make Michigan a more inclusive that embraces our diversity rather than treating as something that’s a negative.”
Representative McMillin and others in the legislature are also in favor of giving health care workers, adoption agencies and others the legal right to refuse to provide services that would violate religious liberties or the moral conscience of those providers. LGBT rights advocates view that as a way to further codify in the law the ability to discriminate.
Anti-gay rights advocates often note in 2004 the voters of Michigan approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage by a nearly 59 percent margin. They suggest the issue is settled. But, the right to marry is not the same as the right to get a job, get housing, or the right to public accommodations such as hotels or restaurants.
In those cities where those protections are in place, LGBT advocates say Representative McMillin and other anti-gay rights members of the legislature should honor the vote of the people there too.
Antonio David Garcia was the Executive Director of the Kalamazoo Gay and Lesbian Resource Center in 2009 when that city voted on whether to pass an anti-discrimination law.
“And yet, when 64 percent of the city’s population passes an initiative to protect gay people, he’s perfectly willing to introduce a bill to overturn that public will. I find it extremely hypocritical and bigoted.”
Garcia is now the CEO of Affirmations, based in Ferndale. He says people should all be equal and that’s not the case in Michigan.
“Anytime somebody denies others rights that they themselves enjoy, they are hypocrites. And, so, all of it smells of hypocrisy.”
But, anti-gay advocates see the risk of their rights being denied as well. Representative Tom McMillin says the state should not force those who think homosexuality is reprehensible to accept protecting it in law.
“Well, I think again, infringing on Christian’s civil liberties is wrong too. Being a bully to Christians –bullying Christians is wrong too.”
There will be a lot of heated debate in the legislature and in the courts before the issue is settled.