Proponents of gay rights in Michigan took two big steps forward recently with the introduction of a resolution that would legalize same-sex marriage in the state and the passage through a state House of Representatives committee of a bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Both the proposal to permit same-sex marriage in the state and the anti-discrimination House bill were introduced by state legislators whose districts include Ann Arbor.

The marriage resolution, introduced by House Speaker Pro Tempore Pam Byrnes (D–Lyndon Twp.), would overturn a 2004 amendment that limits marriage to heterosexual couples in the state. Additionally, the resolution would also make the state recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

The proposal also contains a component that would allow clergy members to exempt themselves from performing same-sex marriages.

In an interview yesterday, Byrnes said the main motivation in introducing the amendment was to ensure equal rights for all people.

“I think it’s time for people to acknowledge the change in attitude…that more and more people are accepting of homosexual relationships and the need that these people have to be respected and honored as anybody else as far as their rights are concerned,” Byrnes said.

But opponents of the bill, like Rep. Dave Agema (R–Grandville), argue that Byrnes’s proposal is unwarranted because Michigan citizens voted in 2004 to ban same-sex marriage in the state.

“In 2004, we voted on that issue and the people in the state of Michigan overwhelmingly voted not to do that,” Agema said. “So to me, what’s going on here is completely trying to erase or eliminate what the people in the state of Michigan have voted on.”

Legal rights and benefits for married couples were the main concerns that contributed to Byrnes’s decision to introduce the amendment.

“I’m looking at the legal aspect of acknowledgment and benefits in law that married couples, heterosexual married couples have, and I believe that those same benefits should be accorded to same sex partners,” Byrnes said.

But Byrnes said she decided to include the component that would exempt clergy members from performing marriage ceremonies to same-sex couples because she does not want to mandate this law for those who do not agree with it because of certain religious beliefs — a nuance that was modeled after Vermont’s same-sex marriage legislation.

“There are religious beliefs out there that do not support that position and…at this point in time, I felt very uncomfortable about mandating that all clergy must perform this ceremony because of religious beliefs,” Byrnes said.

As Byrnes introduced this proposal, the House Judiciary Committee passed a separate bill that would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The bill, introduced last year by Rep. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor), would update the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act passed in 1976.

The bill was introduced in order to extend equal civil rights to people of all sexual orientations as a moral imperative, Warren said.

“There should be equal protections for all of our citizens when it comes to public accommodations, when it comes to employment, when it comes to housing,” Warren said. “And the fact that we still have some of our citizens who are openly discriminated against because of their appearance, because of who they are or who they love, I felt like the legislature needed to take them to address.”

While similar bills have been introduced in the legislature in the past, this marks the first time a bill of this kind was passed by a committee.

The fact that the bill passed on with a bipartisan vote, indicates increasing acceptance of Michigan citizens in expanding gay rights in the state, Warren said.

“I think people are starting to just become much more aware of these issues and there is some change I think in public perception on these issues,” Warren said. “I think we’ve always been hopeful something positive could happen, that we’re starting to see a trend here in Michigan that people are more supportive of being inclusive in diversity.”

Warren said including sexual orientation in the Civil Rights Act will help Michigan to retain a more educated and talented workforce, improving the economic condition of the state.

“We look across the country at the cities that are doing the best financially; the places in the country that are the strongest and it really is conclusive that in diverse places that have supportive policies like this,” Warren said.

She continued, “Right now Michigan needs every advantage as we try to rebuild our challenged economy. We need to have every advantage that we can possibly get and to be known as a welcoming state where you will be treated equally and fairly is an important thing for us to do economically as well as morally.”

The bill is likely to pass in the Democrat-controlled House but is not expected to be “warmly received” by the Republican-majority in the Senate, Rep. Mark Meadows (D–East Lansing), chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said.

The committee passed the bill at a time when gay rights legislation is making strides on both the state and national level, said Meadows, who also co-sponsored the bill.

Last week President Barack Obama signed a hate crimes bill into law, and a city ordinance banning discrimination based on sexual orientation was passed in Kalamazoo.

Ann Arbor already has a city ordinance prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation. The University of Michigan has a non-discrimination policy that includes sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

Meadows said while hate crimes based on sexual orientation discrimination are infrequent, it is an issue that needs to be addressed.

“These are all issues that I think we need to put behind us,” Meadows said. “It’s a rare circumstance where we have discrimination based upon this, but when it does happen, it deserves public attention and it deserves a penalty, so that’s what the bill provides and it’s something that I strongly support.”

Agema said he also disagrees with Byrnes’s argument that overturning the amendment will help the economic condition of the state.

“I don’t think this is going to help economic development,” Agema said. “I think it might even hurt (it), so basically it’s against the will of the people and quite frankly, I disagree. I don’t think we should be doing that.”

Agema added that the approval of a same-sex marriage law in Michigan would threaten the traditional family structure the state is based on.

“I’m not for destroying the basic family unit,” Agema said. “In my opinion, the most basic form of, like I said, government in the state of Michigan right now (are) states with the family unit and I think that hurts the family when we give credence to that lifestyle.”

In regards to the bill passed by the House Judiciary Committee, which would add sexual orientation as a protected group when it comes to hate crimes, Agema said hate crimes shouldn’t be treated separately from other crimes.

“There shouldn’t be special punishments or special requirements or whatever for a particular group because the law has to be equal, not for special people,” Agema said. “It’s a crime no matter who you are. So to pick a particular group out, once again, you’re showing favoritism to one over others. I don’t agree with hate crimes at all, cause I think all crimes are hate.”

Agema said he expects the bill to pass the House but to be rejected by the Senate.

Other opponents of the bill like Gary Glenn, president of the American Family Association of Michigan, think the anti-discrimination legislation is biased against individuals who do not support gay rights.

“(It) should be opposed by the legislature because it has a proven track record of being used for discriminating against and penalizing individuals who disagree with homosexual behavior or cross-dressing,” Glenn said.

Glenn cited various instances of this discrimination in which an employee was fired for expressing opposition to same-sex couples because of his or her own religious beliefs.

In regard to Brynes’s proposal to overturn the ban on same-sex marriage, Glenn said the policy pitch is nothing but “good political theatre” and it is unlikely to come up for a vote in the House.

The proposal, which would have to pass by two-thirds of the House and Senate, would then have to be voted on in a general election to be enacted into law. Glenn said it is unlikely that legislators would be willing to vote on a bill of that nature so close to the upcoming 2010 election.

But Jay Kaplan, LGBT legal project staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, said the proposal needs to be passed to expand gay rights in the state, which are among the worst in the country.

“(The 2004 amendment has) been interpreted by the Supreme Court as taking everything off the table for gay couples,” Kaplan said. “It is one of the broadest of the so-called marriage amendments in the country. We’re one of the five worst states with our amendments.”

It might be difficult to get the proposal passed next year, Kaplan said, because Michigan legislators and citizens need to be educated on the issue of same-sex marriage first.

The 2004 amendment also prevents same-sex couples from accessing domestic partner benefits including health care, which greatly restricts equal rights in the state, according to Warren, who also co-signed the bill.

Byrnes said although current lawmakers are more forward-thinking than the legislature that passed the 2004 amendment, it will still be a challenge to pass the proposal through the House because it requires the two-thirds vote to pass.

“I think we have a different legislature now than there was five years ago,” Byrnes said. “I think it tends to be somewhat more progressive. I know that it will be a challenge …but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be brought to the attention of the legislature.”

Warren said it’s more likely that the Civil Rights Act bill will pass this year than the same-sex marriage amendment as the amendment requires two-thirds of the vote in the legislature while passing the act only requires a majority of the vote.

But despite the uphill battle, Kaplan said the update to the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act is also necessary to allow gay individuals the same rights as all citizens.

Currently under state law, it is legal to fire someone or refuse to provide services to someone because they are gay, bisexual or transgender, according to Kaplan, who has heard from many LGBT individuals who have experienced this discrimination.

“It would under civil rights laws change discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Kaplan said. “These categories are not covered in our state … Discrimination is legal in Michigan. It’s absolutely essential. We need this.”

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