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Elliott-Larsen Expansion Declared Dead for 2013-2014 Session

December 8, 2014

After failing to garner the necessary votes to move an Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act expansion bill out of a House committee Wednesday morning, Speaker Jase BOLGER (R-Marshall) declared the issue dead for the 2013-2014 legislative session.

Asked by MIRS Wednesday afternoon to pin a number on the chances either Rep. Frank FOSTER (R-Petoskey) or Rep. Sam SINGH‘s (D-East Lansing) bills will move through the House during lame duck on a scale of 1-10, Bolger answered, “Zero.”

Likewise, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle also predicted Wednesday that bills to add sexual orientation to the state’s civil right act won’t get the votes they need to make it out of committee.

Those predictions came Wednesday afternoon after the House Commerce Committee held what some labeled a “historic” hearing on HB 5804 and HB 5959, which would bring landmark civil rights protections for gays and lesbians in the state.

HB 5959, sponsored by Rep. Frank FOSTER(R-Petoskey), would add sexual orientation to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. HB 5804, sponsored by Rep. Sam SINGH (D-East Lansing) would add sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression to the civil rights act.

The problem, according to a variety of lawmakers, is that Democrats won’t support Foster’s bill because they say without gender identity language, it won’t protect the transgender community. At the same time, Republicans haven’t been quick to commit to Singh’s bill because Bolger has spoken out against it.

The Commerce Committee took about 90 minutes of testimony on both bills without voting on whether they should advance.

Afterward, Foster, the chairman of the committee, said the support wasn’t there to advance bills.

“We’re close but we’re not there,” Foster said. “And I’m not sure we’re going to get there.”

If supporters don’t get “there,” Wednesday’s committee hearing will be the final step this session for a lengthy effort to expand civil rights protections in the state to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Business groups have pushed for the change, and a coalition formed to back the legislation.

But disagreement between lawmakers and the interest groups over whether “gender identity” should be included in the final bill fractured the coalition.

Wednesday, the Commerce Committee took testimony on Foster’s bill, which doesn’t include “gender identity,” and Singh’s bill, which does.

The committee heard from six supporters of amending the civil rights act and four opponents.

The testimony unfolded in a crowded meeting room, where the wide majority of the seats were full and some people stood in the back of the room to watch.

Singh, Foster and representatives from the business community spoke out for changing the law. They argued the bills would help prevent discrimination and improve the state’s economy.

The opponents included religious leaders and the chair of the Christian Coalition of Michigan. They countered that the bills would lead to a flood of lawsuits against the religious community and would create a conflict in state law between freedom of religion and the civil rights protections for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

During his comments, Foster, who’s been working on the issue for longer than a year, urged his colleagues to “check your politics as the door for this one, and do what’s right for the state.”

Foster, like multiple representatives from the business community, said the bills would make Michigan more economically competitive.

Allan GILMOUR, a former Ford Motor Company, also spoke on that point, saying organizations can’t succeed while leaving out a segment of the population.

“Now is the time to stop leaving out the LGBT community,” Gilmour told the panel. “We need the talent.”

On the other side of the matter, Lansing attorney David KALLMAN said the bills would lead to years of litigation and would be used to attack small businesses.

Of similar laws in other states, he said, “This law is being used as a sword. It’s not being used as a shield.”

And Randall THOMPSON, of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, said any disgruntled employee could try to use the bills against businesses.

He said the bills should be re-labeled “the full employment act for labor lawyers.”

And Rev. Stacy SWIMP, president of the National Christian Leadership Council, criticized supporters of the bills for comparing the plight of the LGBT community to the plight of African-Americans.

Foster pushed back on that.

“I will agree with you on the fact that African-Americans in this country’s short history have been discriminated against maybe larger than this community,” Foster said. “But if you don’t think the LGBT community has been discriminated against, been drug behind cars, been hung up by their necks till their heads, been denied housing, been denied commerce opportunities then you’re just not looking very far.”

Also in attendance Wednesday was Republican National Committeeman Dave AGEMA who wanted to speak against the bills but wasn’t allowed to because of time restraints.

“In the state of Michigan, right now, anybody can hire a homosexual if they want to,” Agema said in an interview. “There’s nothing saying they can’t. If that’s what you think business should do, then do it. The problem is when you start demanding that they have to provide a service that goes against their religious faith.”

Foster said if the 19-member Commerce Committee meets again on the bills in next days, it will be because he’s gathered the votes necessary to advance the bills.

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