Strengthening LGBTQ protections is the first order of business for Michigan Democrats

Michigan Democrats kicked off a new legislative term this week by introducing a bill that would codify LGBTQ protections under the state’s civil rights law.

Last year, the State Supreme Court interpreted the Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to include protections for LGBTQ people, but the new proposal could further ensure that those rights can withstand the scrutiny of any lawsuits that may arise in the future.

The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act protects against discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, marital status, and marital status.

Proponents and opponents of changing the law have debated different interpretations of the word “sex” in recent years, with proponents arguing that the word is an umbrella term that encompasses sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression.

In 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission adopted an interpretive statement prohibiting discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation under the category of sex, while a 2022 Michigan Supreme Court decision enshrined those protections into law.

Justice Brian Zahra wrote a dissenting opinion arguing that it was up to the legislature, not the court, to add sexual orientation to civil rights law. He said the majority analyzed the Elliott-Larsen civil rights act in a “vacuum” devoid of “relevant and critical historical-linguistic context.”

“The context necessary to make them fully understandable and to preserve Michiganders’ right to self-government and the constitutional separation of powers,” he wrote.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel argued the state Supreme Court case last year. In a press release Wednesday, she noted the significant timing of the legislation’s introduction, given the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn the landmark 1973 abortion rights case, Roe v. Wade, last June.

“Given the current state of our nation’s judiciary, where high courts have succumbed to political pressure and overturned longstanding and even judicially-reviewed decisions like Roe v. Wade, it is imperative that these rights be enshrined in Michigan law to help them withstand future legal attacks,” Nessel said.

Democratic lawmakers have pushed for years to add legal protections for LGBTQ people to Elliott Larsen’s Civil Rights Act and, as the new majority, may have a better chance of passing the bill than in previous years under GOP leadership.

If passed, this bill would further strengthen protections for LGBTQ people in Michigan from discrimination in employment, housing, education and more.

The House and Senate introduced separate bills, sponsored by Rep. Jason Hoskins, D-Southfield and Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield— both members of the LGBTQ community.

Since the two bills were introduced, activists have hailed them as an additional step toward LGBTQ rights.

Nearly one in five hate crimes is motivated by anti-LGBTQ prejudice, according to the LGBTQ advocacy organization Human Rights Campaign (HRC).

Related: Violence against trans people reached record levels last year. Some in Michigan benefit from that.

Jay Kaplan, LGBTQ rights attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan (ACLU), released a statement thanking lawmakers for recognizing that the civil rights bill actually protects all Michiganders.

“Everyone has the right to live their authentic lives safely and freely in Michigan and beyond,” Kaplan said.

Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott urged the Legislature to work together to advance the legislation quickly.

“Many LGBTQ+ people still face harassment and abuse in many other areas of life. LGBTQ+ people of color – especially Black transgender women – face even higher rates of discrimination and violence,” Knott said. “That’s why we need to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to explicitly include sexual orientation and gender identity. Today’s action by legislators sends a clear message that discrimination has no home in our country.”

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