A long-stalled movement to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBT people may gain traction — not in the Legislature but with a Michigan board that is being asked to declare that such discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations is already unlawful under state law.
The Michigan Civil Rights Commission will meet Monday to consider the request after two months of receiving public feedback, including roughly 300 comments. The interpretive statement, if issued, would say that discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of sex discrimination outlawed under the state's 1976 civil rights law.
The request from LGBT rights group Equality Michigan has revived a political fight between Democrats and Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature who have been at odds over expanding civil rights protections for LGBT citizens. Outside allies also have offered sharply different views on the commission's responsibility and authority in the wake of federal rulings declaring LGBT-based discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations is forbidden.
"The lack of clarity about the meaning of sex discrimination under (Michigan's) Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, and the Legislature's protracted failure to act to explicitly protect LGBTQ people, leaves these Michiganders without a remedy for the wrongs they face," Equality Michigan public policy director Nathan Triplett wrote to the commission. "The interpretative statement we are requesting will clarify a glaring legal ambiguity and give LGBTQ people access to the legal protection they deserve and to which they are entitled."
Nine of 11 Senate Democrats signed a letter urging the commission to act.
"As a state, when we fail to protect this large segment of our population, we are actively choosing to disenfranchise our friends and neighbors. Every person should have the opportunity to earn a living and support their family," Senate Democrats said.
Thirty-one of 45 House Democrats also weighed in, saying the commission should help draw attention for the need for legislators to join 17 other states with protections for "all of their residents."
On the other side are 10 GOP legislators — five from each chamber — whose position was submitted by a conservative legal group. They said the Legislature has rejected adding more classifications to the state civil rights law 11 times since 1999.
"An interpretive statement is not binding law. It would not, therefore, make LGBT discrimination 'unlawful in Michigan,' would not be legally binding on employers and individuals in our state and would not give any legal remedies to alleged victims of discrimination," according to the Great Lakes Justice Center.
Republican Sen. Patrick Colbeck, a gubernatorial candidate, said Equality Michigan "appears to have decided that if they can't successfully get a new law passed by the Legislature, they will seek out other government organizations in an attempt to try to reinterpret what the law says. Quite simply put, they are asking the Civil Rights Commission to do something that they cannot legally do."
The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan says it's gotten more than 500 complaints of LGBT discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodations in the past 17 years. While more than 40 municipalities have LGBT-inclusive human rights ordinances, people in most places in Michigan can be "fired for being gay, denied an apartment for being lesbian or be refused services for being transgender," said ACLU attorney Jay Kaplan.
He said the interpretive statement is important because many of the local ordinances lack remedies provided by state law and municipalities lack resources to adequately investigate discrimination complaints.
Legislators last considered bills to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation in 2014, when a business-backed push died after a dispute between Republicans and Democrats over including specific protections for gay and lesbians but not for transgender residents. A ballot initiative was abandoned in 2016.
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