Sparking what was predicted to be contentious topic in both this year’s lame duck session of state legislature and beyond, there are now two different versions of an amendment to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act up for consideration in Lansing.
The act as it currently stands protects state residents from workplace, housing and other forms of discrimination on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status and marital status.
The first proposed amendment, introduced concurrently by Rep. Sam Singh (D–East Lansing) in the House and by Sen. Rebekah Warren (D–Ann Arbor) in the Senate in September, proposes new protections for to include both sexual orientation and gender identity or expression as protected identities — a change Democrats have unsuccessfully sought multiple times over the past few years.
The second, introduced Wednesday afternoon by Rep. Frank Foster (R–Petoskey) in the House, only proposes including sexual orientation, and was met with criticism from both LGBTQ advocates and the Democratic caucus.
Rep. Adam Zemke (D–Ann Arbor), who co-sponsored Singh’s bill, said the main issue with Foster’s proposal was his omission of proposed protections for gender identity and expression.
“The important thing that we need to understand is that the bill that was introduced by Rep. Foster is not a compromise,” Zemke said. “It’s sending the message that discrimination against one group of people is okay as long as we’re protecting another group, and that’s not right.”
Republicans in the state legislature have argued that a recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling, which found that discrimination against transgender people qualified as sex discrimination, could also apply to the ELCRA, which they say would effectively create protections for gender identity. Democrats and LGBTQ advocacy groups have strongly contested that interpretation.
Several cities and public institutions within Michigan, including Ann Arbor and the University, have amended their own ordinances and policies to include both gender identity and expression and sexuality, but these changes are relatively isolated, making amending the act on the state level a focus for many LGBTQ groups.
“The ability to be fired just because of who you are is bigger than just a theoretical debate,” said Jason Morgan, co-chair of the Jim Toy Community Center’s Public Policy committee. “It’s a very real issue for people. And there are people who’ve been fired for being gay. So it’s not just about the broader civil rights discussion. There is a very real, tangible impact on the lives of people to be protected that is necessary.”
Foster, who will lose his seat at the end of the lame duck legislative session in December, introduced his revised amendment with the backing of Speaker of the House Jase Bolger (R–Marshall), who previously stated he did not support Singh or Warren’s bills.
Bolger introduced a third bill along with Foster’s, the Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, that parallels a 1993 federal legislation which permits broad exemptions to federal laws if they conflict with an individual’s religious beliefs. In a statement, Bolger said the act’s passage would be necessary for him to allow Foster’s bill to come to a vote.
“I have been researching this issue for well over a year and said repeatedly that I would work on finding legislation that could strike a balance between protecting personal liberties and defending religious freedom,” Bolger said. “I believe Rep. Frank Foster’s bill on Elliott Larsen and my bill on MiRFRA provide that necessary balance.”
His stance was applauded by the Michigan Catholic Conference, which represents Roman Catholic bishops in the state, as an important expression of religious tolerance.
However, both the state Democratic caucus and various LGBTQ advocacy groups indicated they would not support Foster’s bill, and condemned the additional legislation concerning religious exemptions.
In an interview Wednesday morning, before Foster’s bill was announced, Rep. Jeff Irwin (D–Ann Arbor), who co-sponsored Singh’s bill, said religious exemptions had the potential to reduce the impact of the ELCRA.
“It’s really opening up the biggest possible loophole in our anti-discrimination laws,” Irwin said. “Because much of the discrimination that people face, if not based on religion, is justified by religious scripture.”
Following the introduction of Foster and Bolger’s bills Wednesday, a coalition of LGBTQ advocacy groups announced they would begin exploring non-legislative pathways, such as a ballot question, to get the original version of the amendment passed.
Irwin said any proposed amendments that didn’t include gender identity and expression, or came tied to potential religious exemptions, had the potential to halt the momentum built up around the issue in Lansing over the past few years.
“If this is something we’re going to do in a bipartisan way, with some folks from both sides — though probably more votes from Democrats in support — it’s got to be something that Democrats actually support,” Irwin said. “A bill that is not fully inclusive, that leaves the most persecuted and the most discriminated part in this community behind and that really opens up a loophole for discrimination against gay and lesbian people, that will not be the kind of policy I think that progressives are going to rally behind.”