LANSING — After more than two hours of impassioned testimony from more than 50 people, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission on Monday declined a request to reinterpret the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for the LGBT community.
“We were barred from making an interpretative statement,” said an obviously annoyed commission chairwoman Rasha Demashkieh, because the Attorney General’s Office said the commission didn’t have the authority to make such a statement. “I’m perturbed that we have no recourse. In my mind, discrimination is discrimination and no one should be discriminated against.”
The Civil Rights Commission investigates complaints of discrimination and a reinterpretation of the Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act could give it the authority to investigate complaints on housing and job discrimination against the LGBT community.
Commissioner Linda Lee Tarver wanted a clean refusal of the request. “We’re not here to expand law; it is not within our purview,” she said.
Equality Michigan, a group that advocates for the LGBT community, asked the civil rights commission to clarify the state’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination in hiring and housing based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status.
The group believes that the definition of sex discrimination should include sexual orientation and gender identity.
But Ron Robinson, an assistant in the Attorney General’s Office, told the commission that only the Legislature could reinterpret the civil rights act. “And should the commission issue a ruling contrary to the Attorney General, the commission would give up its governmental immunity and would be subject to a lawsuit.”
The commission also requested a formal opinion on the matter from Attorney General Bill Schuette and left the issue on the table for future discussion.
Nathan Triplett, director of public policy for Equality Michigan, said he wasn’t surprised by the decision.
“Once again we see Attorney General Bill Schuette using his position of public trust and power to intervene on the side of discrimination and against equality,” he said. “Now the attorney general is going to have to say with certainty what the state of the law is.”
The decision came after more than two hours of testimony on both sides of the issue.
Those opposed, including many pastors from churches around the state, spoke out mostly on religious grounds.
“You don’t have the authority to do this. Even if Elliott Larsen was changed by the Legislature, we would not follow it,” said Rusty Chatfield, pastor of the Northern Michigan Baptist Bible Church in Burt Lake. “We believe all people were created in (God’s) image. There are two sexes, male and female. We will not bow, we will not obey that law.”
Others were opposed because of their belief in the separation of powers in state government.
“Wherever you stand on the issue, the rule of law has to matter. When someone makes up a law and the governor signs it, if you want to change the law, the Legislature is the one that must do that,” said William Wagner, a lawyer with the Great Lakes Justice Center, which sent a letter to the commission on behalf of 11 Republican state lawmakers opposing an expansion of ELCRA.
State Sen. Patrick Colbeck, R-Canton, said everyone involved in state government has to play their own roles and it’s up to the Legislature to make or change laws: “Otherwise we devolve into a pee-wee hockey game.”
More: Michigan Civil Rights Commission may declare LGBT discrimination unlawful
Those hoping for a change in the definition of sex in the ELCRA said that everyone deserves to be protected from discrimination, whether they are gay, straight or transgender.
“I’ve had things thrown at me. I’ve been asked to leave restaurants and bars. I’ve lost more jobs than I can count or been denied employment,” said Carol Bacon, a transgender woman from Clinton Township. “This shouldn’t happen in this country.”
And Glenna DeJong, who with her partner Marsha Caspar was one of the first same-sex couples to marry in Michigan, said discrimination is not one of Jesus’ values.
“I’m here with my soul mate of 30 years. We’re not beasts. We’re not abominations and we’re not to be hated,” said the Saugatuck resident. “We’re hard-working Michiganders looking forward to our golden years in western Michigan.”
Lisa Goyette of Orion Township and a board member of the “Stand with Trans” group, said denying protections to transgender people is irresponsible and inhumane.
“The Jesus that I have been taught loves everyone, including the LGBT community,” she said.
Some lawmakers have introduced legislation over the years to expand the Elliott Larsen act to include a ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, but those efforts have been thwarted by Republican leadership in the House and Senate. Gov. Rick Snyder and many in the business community support the civil rights act expansion.
The Civil Rights Commission got hundreds of comments from people on the issue before Monday’s hearing. Commission director Agustin Arbulu told the commission before the meeting that he didn’t think they had the authority to reinterpret the ELCRA.
“Their request is to do something that the commission doesn’t have the right to do,” he said.
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