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Elliott Larsen Bills Dropped In Rocky Legislative Waters

September 16, 2014

A pair of Democratic legislators turned in bills Wednesday to expand the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity, but the legislation’s future looks rocky.

Few Republican lawmakers appear willing to take the jump, despite the House Speaker, Senate Majority Leader and Gov. Rick SNYDER indicating their openness to discuss the topic. 

The one Republican interested in championing the issue, Rep. Frank FOSTER (R-Pellston) is holding off on introducing his bill until he feels there’s calmer seas for passage. And he’s not feeling it, yet. 

House Speaker Jase BOLGER (R-Marshall) wants to tie any reforms to expanded religious protections, which the Dems are naturally leery about. 

And a head of the growing business coalition looking to advance this issue, AT&T Michigan President Jim MURRAY, suggested the issue may need to be broken up only to include sexual orientation and not gender identity. 

“We have a window of opportunity and I’m going to advocate for something that has 56 ‘yes’ votes in the House and 20 ‘yes’ votes in the Senate,” he said. “This is a tricky issue for a lot of the Republicans and when you’re pushing legislation sometimes you don’t get everything you want.” 

The concern among supporters is that, assuming the Republicans maintain control, the leadership will be more politically conservative and less willing to move anything, keeping legalized discrimination against this population on the books for another legislative session. 

But the ACLU, United Michigan Director Jon HOADLEY, Equality Michigan Executive Director Emily DIEVENDORF and a half dozen other LGBT leaders pushed Senate Democrats on Monday not to compromise in the bill Sen. Rebekah WARREN (D-Ann Arbor) introduced Wednesday.

“The lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community is one community and we want one bill to protect us all,” the letter reads. “We urge you to reject any effort that leaves transgender persons without protections.” 

That’s exactly what Warren and Rep. Sam SINGH (D-East Lansing) did, turning in blue backs that will likely be read in as bills during the next legislative session. Both also stayed away from any proposal to exempt religious organizations from anti-discriminatory actions. 

“We wouldn’t be interested in enshrining anything into Michigan law that’s worse than what we already have,” Warren said. “I don’t think there’s a place to compromise on something like that.” 

Bolger said he can’t support the bills dropped this week, but he’s continuing to look for a solution that incorporates religious protections. 

According to one source, what Bolger is looking at doesn’t mean allowing a highly religious baker to refuse a wedding cake for a marrying gay wedding, but maybe closer to making sure the highly religious aren’t forced to participate in a ceremony that runs against their beliefs. The challenge is finding the legislative language to articulate that. 

It should be noted, however, Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy RICHARDVILLE (R-Monroe) were the legislative leaders that successful dealt with a hang-up on sexual orientation, gender identity and religion threatened to derail the anti-bullying bill. 

“I believe Michigan workers should be hired or fired based on their work ethic and work performance, and nobody should suffer discrimination just as nobody should be forced to violate their religious beliefs,” Bolger said. “We need to strike this important balance for all of Michigan’s hardworking women and men.” 

Senate Minority Leader Gretchen WHITMER‘s Press Secretary Bob McCANN called Bolger’s comments “insulting.”

“Speaker Bolger has a choice to either oppose discrimination or support excuses to condone it. With his comments today, he’s clearly choosing the latter. Democrats have been pushing to amend Elliot-Larsen for years now and have been supported every step of the way by people of faith who would never use their religion as an excuse to justify discrimination in any form,” she said.

Singh said if there’s tightly worded language regarding religion that Republicans are proposing, he would take a look at it, but he’s concerned that if the wording gets too broad the bill’s co-sponsors could “move in another direction.” 

The entire Democratic caucus and Rep. John OLUMBA (I-Detroit) signed his bill as co-sponsors. No Republicans signed on. However, with 33 other communities in Michigan providing these types of protections, he’s hoping to still see legislative movement before year’s end. 

“It’s 2014. It’s time for us to provide basic protection for all people in employment, public accommodations and housing. That’s what this bill does,” Singh said. “We shouldn’t be providing any safe haven for discrimination in the state of Michigan.” 

But getting many members of the Republican caucus to budge will be a challenger predicted socially conservative Rep. Thomas HOOKER (R-Byron Center). 

“(Under the bill) religious camps, even churches, will be vulnerable to religious discrimination against on their strongly held beliefs,” he said. “It’s not a matter of protecting the rights of certain individual, it’s protecting our current constitution. We have guarantees that everyone is protected.” 

Asked again about the timing of the legislative debate on Elliot Larsen and the state’s LGBT community, Gov. Rick SNYDER said “It’s not good” to tell lawmakers what the timing is. He left that to it, but repeated there should be that discussion.  

That wasn’t a good enough statement for Progress Michigan Executive Director Lonnie SCOTT

“Gov. Snyder has repeatedly said that the legislature needs to have a ‘discussion’ on amending the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, well that time has come and it’s about time that Snyder weighed in,” Scott said. “Gov. Snyder needs to act like a leader for once in his tenure and tell the people of Michigan how he feels on this issue that is important to so many families.”

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