A Michigan House committee debated amendments to Michigan’s Civil Rights Act on Wednesday, considering two bills seeking to include anti-discriminatory protections of sexual orientation, as well as gender identity and expression for the first time in the state’s history.
Business owners, advocacy groups, representatives of faith groups and lawmakers provided testimony to the House Commerce Committee regarding two competing versions of an amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
One version, proposed by state Rep. Sam Singh (D–East Lansing), would modify the act to include protections for both sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. The other, proposed by state Rep. Frank Foster (R–Petoskey), includes protections only for sexual orientation.
Neither bill moved out of committee Wednesday due to a lack of requisite support.
Proponents of the bills who spoke Wednesday cited economic reasons — amending the act has garnered strong support from a wide coalition of businesses across the state — and personal reasons for the amendments.
In addition to Foster and Singh, supporters included Allan Gilmour, a former vice chairman of Ford Motor Company; Kary Moss, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan; and Holland business owner Jeff Padnos.
Singh told the committee this was a turning point for the state, which would join 19 others in having similar policies to the amendment he proposed.
“(This is) a historic day to … tell the rest of the country who we are, what we stand for and what our values are,” he said.
He also told the committee that excluding transgender people would be the same as condoning discrimination, a message echoed by several of the other speakers.
Gilmour, who was one of a few openly gay executives during his time at Ford, said businesses are concerned that the current lack of protections for LGBTQ individuals disincentivizes people from coming to work in Michigan.
“Concepts don’t develop themselves, cars don’t sell themselves … and no organization can afford to leave out a segment of the population,” Gilmour said.
“Now is the time to stop leaving out the LGBT community. We need the talent,” he added.
All of the speakers in favor of modifying the ELCRA except for Foster supported Singh’s more inclusive amendment.
In speaking for his bill, Foster acknowledged the controversy surrounding it. He has faced criticism from both sides of the aisle, and his support for the proposed amendment was a major point of contention during the Republican primary election for his seat in August, which he lost.
“Some people think the bill goes too far,” he said. “Others think it doesn’t go far enough. I say it’s the next positive step.”
Opponents of the bill — speaking for several several conservative religious groups, including the National Christian Leadership Council, representatives of the Michigan Christian Coalition and the Michigan Family Forum — questioned the bill’s necessity and impact. They also expressed concerns about potential consequences for religious freedom in the state.
Keith Den Hollander, a representative of the Michigan Christian Coalition, told the committee his opposition stemmed from concerns with the efficacy of the bills rather than morality.
“I don’t accept the premise that by changing the law, we will change people’s hearts,” he said.
Lansing attorney David Kallman, who represented the Michigan branch of Citizens for Traditional Values and the Michigan Family Forum at the meeting, said similar laws in other states have had negative impacts on religious freedom, especially for small businesses.
“Bakeries, photographers, on and on — there is case after case where this law is being used as a sword; it’s not being used as a shield,” he said. “These laws are being used to bully and silence individuals acting on their religious conscience.”
No additional Commerce Committee meeting regarding the amendments is currently scheduled, but the House Judiciary Committee is expected to debate a third bill closely tied to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, the proposed Michigan Religious Freedom Restoration Act, on Thursday.
The Michigan RFRA, proposed by House Speaker Jase Bolger (R–Marshall) parallels existing federal legislation and would grant broad exemptions to state laws if they conflict with an individual’s religious beliefs. Bolger has said he would require its passage before allowing an ELCRA amendment to come to the House floor, a position Democrats have decried.