For almost a year, advocates of prohibiting discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity in Michigan geared their strategy to this month.
It’s when the GOP-led Legislature, nudged by a growing coalition of major businesses, would pass a bipartisan bill to update Michigan’s civil rights law to include protections for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender residents.
The lead sponsor would be a Republican, aided by LGBT activists and others working behind the scenes. Lawmakers from both parties, particularly those running for re-election in swing districts, would embrace a “good vote” before November by declaring that discrimination — against anyone — is wrong in a state where many don’t realize it’s legal to fire or refuse to hire people because they’re gay.
The plan, however, fell apart. And it’s questionable if a deal is possible when legislators return for their “lame duck” session after the election.
“Our real window is lame duck. … It’s hard to do something big like this without falling into election-year politics,” said AT&T Michigan President Jim Murray, who co-chairs the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, a group of companies and chambers of commerce backing the legislation as a way to retain and attract talent to the state.
There are at least three reasons that the effort is on hold:
— The would-be GOP sponsor, Rep. Frank Foster of Petoskey, lost in the August primary to a Tea Party challenger. His support for gay rights could have been a factor along with his backing of Medicaid expansion and Common Core education standards. That gave receptive Republican leadership pause and cost time in a four-week session that began after Labor Day. Democrats then introduced their own bills. Foster is expected to follow suit after the Nov. 4 election.
— Some rank-and-file Republicans recently expressed concern or confusion over adding gender identity to the law that makes it illegal to discriminate based on sex, religion, race, color, national origin, height, weight, familial status or marital status. Including gays, lesbians, and bisexuals but not transgender residents is a non-starter for many Democrats and organizations that have fought to update the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.
— Talks continue over conservatives’ concerns about infringing on beliefs of those opposed to homosexuality for religious reasons. Backers of the LGBT protections are open to including religious exemptions for employers. The key is how those exceptions would be written and where in the law they would appear — in the update to the civil rights act itself or in a separate bill.
The Michigan Catholic Conference, the church’s lobbying arm, says all 21 states that bar discrimination based on sexual orientation have religious liberty protections.
“I would consider that the mainstream approach,” said spokesman Dave Maluchnik. He said Democratic bills as introduced could possibly be “used as a sword against religious persons or organizations rather than a shield against discrimination.”
But Equality Michigan, a gay rights organization, warned that “inserting licenses to discriminate into the bill will not be tolerated.”
There could be room for compromise, though.
Democratic Rep. Sam Singh of East Lansing, who’s sponsoring the House anti-discrimination legislation, said he’s open to “reaffirming” religious freedom protections already in the Constitution and state law. He would oppose more broadly-worded religious exceptions, he said.
Putting words to paper has proved difficult. Key players involved in negotiations caution that they haven’t seen any proposed religious language. Before Republican Gov. Rick Snyder signed an anti-bullying law in 2011, Michigan landed in the national spotlight when GOP senators added a clause — later dropped — saying the legislation didn’t “prohibit a statement of a sincerely held religious belief or moral conviction” by a student or school employee.
At least 19 states have approved laws mirroring the 1993 federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which prohibits the government from imposing a substantial burden on the exercise of religion for anything other than a compelling government interest pursued in the least restrictive way.
The bigger sticking point, however, is whether to include anti-discrimination protections for transgender residents.
“It would send a signal that if left out, it was left out for a reason. We don’t believe we can ever compromise on this because we would never support a bill that allowed discrimination against even one small group of people,” said Shelli Weisberg, legislative director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, whose executive director co-chairs the coalition pushing legislators to act.
Splinters have formed in the coalition.
AT&T’s Murray, a former veteran legislative aide, said while some lawmakers haven’t outright opposed the inclusion of protections for transgender individuals, they may not be ready.
“Personally, I would like to see everybody included, but I also would like to see something pass,” he said.