Whitmer, LGBTQ caucus make big push to win GOP support for Elliott-Larsen bill

LGBTQ activist Jeynce Poindexter with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Rep. Jon Hoadley at the announcement of non-discrimination legislation for LGBTQs, June 4, 2019 | Derek Robertson
Updated 2:56 p.m., 4:57 p.m.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer appeared alongside members of the Legislature’s LGBTQ Caucus in her office at the Capitol Tuesday to announce legislation that would amend the state’s civil rights act to protect LGBTQ individuals under the law.

State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) will introduce bills in their respective chambers that, if passed, would add sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under 1976’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Sen. Jeremy Moss and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Affirmations in Ferndale, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

“[This bill] is important for every one of us in Michigan — whether you identify as a member of the LGBTQ community or just simply as a Michigander who wants to see our state thrive,” Whitmer said Tuesday morning. “It’s time to get Michigan on the right side of history.”

Whitmer, Moss and Hoadley all stressed their belief that they can persuade the Republican-controlled Legislature to support such legislation, with Hoadley citing the support of state Rep. Tommy Brann (R-Wyoming).

“America, and Michigan, support full equality,” Hoadley said. “At a time when we see historic passage of the Equality Act in Congress, and for the first time bipartisan support of expanding the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act here in the Michigan House, we know that there is a viable pathway forward.”

The legislation would also, according to a press release, “prohibit discrimination in the LGBTQ community when it comes to being considered for housing, public accommodations, employment and more.”

Rep. Jon Hoadley at the announcement of non-discrimination legislation for LGBTQs, June 4, 2019 | Derek Robertson

The renewed push to amend Elliot-Larsen comes after Whitmer, in her first week in office, signed an executive directive banning discrimination against LGBTQ people in state government.

Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission ruled last year that the term “sex” in the civil rights act includes the categories in question. Attorney General Dana Nessel has indicated she’s open to releasing an opinion as such.

She released a statement Tuesday in support of Moss and Hoadley’s legislation, saying, “By expanding the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to irrefutably include sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes, we are saying all people in our state deserve to be treated equally and fairly — the very intent of this law when it was established.”*

AG will offer opinion, but says Legislature should ban LGBTQ discrimination

Ahead of Tuesday’s announcement, Whitmer appeared Monday at Ferndale’s Affirmations community space with Moss for a town hall celebrating the beginning of Pride Month, the annual LGBTQ celebration that commemorates 1969’s Stonewall riots in New York.

Sen. Jeremy Moss holds up a copy of his LGBTQ non-discrimination legislation at Affirmations in Ferndale, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

On Monday, Whitmer formally declared June as Pride Month in Michigan. A spokesperson for the governor did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation on whether she is the first Michigan governor to do so.

Moss unofficially unveiled the legislation there, saying it “touches every aspect of the LGBTQ community from protecting a young employee who faces workplace bullying and discrimination, to older, established LGBTQ adults who want to make sure that they can retire with dignity … and not have to go back into the closet.”

Legislators’ efforts to amend Elliott-Larsen in the past were repeatedly doomed by most Republicans’ unwillingness to endorse them. Hoadley said Tuesday that aside from Brann, no other Republicans have yet signed onto the bill, but that he and the LGBTQ Caucus remain optimistic in the wake of last month’s deal over auto insurance reform.

Tommy Brann

“We have demonstrated that we are in a moment where we can take on big, bipartisan opportunities here in the state of Michigan … like the one in front of us,” Hoadley said. “And we know that by having co-sponsors put their name on the bill, with more folks raising their hand saying they want to be on the right side of history, that there’s a moment here where we can get this done.”

Current Republican leaders, however, have been publicly cold on the issue. In January, state House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) said on WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record” that a bill was likely off the table during his speakership.

“Personally, I don’t believe people should be discriminated against,” Chatfield said. “But at the same time, I’m never going to endorse a law or allow a bill to come for a vote that I believe infringes on someone’s ability to exercise their sincerely held religious beliefs.”

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) told the Detroit News that same month: “If we can include protections for religious freedom in the Constitution, fine, but otherwise [amending Elliott-Larsen is] not something that’s going to be a high priority.”

Speaker Lee Chatfield and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, May 24, 2019 | Nick Manes

A spokesperson for Chatfield told the Advance Tuesday that the Speaker’s position remains unchanged. A spokesperson for Shirkey said the same of his own position.*

The most recent push to amend Elliott-Larsen to protect LGBTQ individuals was in 2014, when former state Rep. Frank Foster (R-Petoskey) sponsored similar legislation. One of the debates that term was over including transgender individuals, as some advocates thought just protecting “LGBs” would be an easier sell to Republicans.

The bill ultimately failed to gain traction, and Foster later lost his seat to a primary challenger from the right who said it would lead to “many unintended consequences and great losses in religious freedom.”

That Republican was Lee Chatfield.

Affirmations in Ferndale | Derek Robertson

Speaking to reporters Tuesday morning, Moss said his personal relationship with the Republican speaker could be a potential avenue to move his caucus toward supporting the bill.

“It’s no secret that one of the oddest friendships in Lansing is me and Lee Chatfield,” Moss said. “Maybe before he was elected, he didn’t have somebody who was as assertive in talking about this policy proposal as I have … if there’s a majority or momentum in the Republican caucus, he’s going to have to think about these bills in a different way, and what their long-term impact will be on the state of Michigan.”

Whitmer made the argument Monday that one of the bill’s biggest benefits might be economic, pointing to what might be a key avenue of persuasion for her Republican counterparts.

“It’s not just the right thing to do, which is compelling enough for the people in this room,” Whitmer said at Affirmations. “But it’s also a smart thing to do for our state, for our future and our ability to compete in the world. That’s how we’re going to get more people to sign on with Jeremy Moss’ legislation.”

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the announcement of non-discrimination legislation for LGBTQs, June 4, 2019 | Derek Robertson

The Michigan chapter of the country’s largest labor organization, the AFL-CIO, weighed in, as well, with President Ron Bieber saying, “For the last 40 years, the AFL-CIO has supported adding protections for the LGBTQ community to federal law. … No one should be fired because of who they are or who they love; that’s a basic level of dignity all working people deserve.”

Whitmer alluded to the potential for a ballot initiative protecting LGBTQ rights if the Legislature should fail to pass a bill doing so, an option that was championed by Nessel before she ran for attorney general and that’s been controversial within the LGBTQ community in the past.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at Affirmations in Ferndale, June 3, 2019 | Derek Robertson

“We’ve seen the people of Michigan right the laws where they need to be righted, and we’ve seen them speak up when the Legislature doesn’t reflect what their values are,” the governor said during her remarks announcing the legislation Tuesday.

“But my hope is that we can work with the Legislature and build bridges to make sure that we finally bring Michigan into the present. We are behind what other states are doing, and it’s hurting us economically.”

After the Tuesday announcement, Moss emphasized to reporters what he sees as the importance of using the Legislature for its intended purpose.

“We have to do our job here,” Moss said. “[A bill] is the quickest, least expensive, and most moral way to move this forward. We’re supposed to represent the people of the state of Michigan, and not immediately just put rights up for a public up or down vote.”

This story was updated to include comment from state Attorney General Dana Nessel and a spokesperson for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey.

Derek Robertson
Derek Robertson is a former associate editor of the Advance. Previously, he wrote for Politico Magazine in Washington. He is a Genesee County native and graduate of both Wayne State University, where he studied history, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

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