Michigan's attorney general office has taken notice of comments made by the owner of a hair salon and beauty store in Traverse City. Christine Geiger stated publicly that from now on, she would refuse some would-be customers because she said it was her First Amendment right to fight “woke” liberal ideology by refusing service to transgender and other LGBTQ+ people, who she believes are “pedophiles.”
In the wake of the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in 303 Creative vs. Elenis, when the conservative majority ruled that a Colorado web designer could refuse to make a website for a same-sex couple’s wedding because forcing her to make such a website would violate her rights against compelled speech, the owner of Studio 8 Hair Lab, Christine Geiger, posted on Facebook this week that some in the LGBTQ+ community were unwelcome in her business.
However, while Gieger may believe that the recent Supreme Court decision gives her the right to discriminate in this way, legal experts say that she is not only wrong about that but also violating a state law that protects LGBTQ+ people’s civil rights.
In March, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed an amendment to the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, extending protections to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Office of Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who is a lesbian, has received several complaints about Geiger’s explicit statements, a spokesperson for the department said.
“The Department and the Attorney General herself are aware of the Traverse City salon proprietor’s professed intent to discriminate against Michigan residents,” the AG’s press secretary Danny Wimmer told The Advocate.
“At the Department, we have received several complaints pertaining to the bigotry exhibited by the salon proprietor in Traverse City, and the Attorney General finds the comments to be hateful, reprehensible remarks that seek only to marginalize a community already suffering from discriminatory animus in Michigan and elsewhere,” he added.
After the Supreme Court’s ruling in June, Nessel reiterated that the 303 Creative case did not affect LGBTQ+ MIchiganders’ access to most services in the state.
“This holding has no impact on Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) when it is applied to protect against discrimination in the provision of public accommodations that do not constitute speech,” Nessel said in a press release. “My office will continue to fight to enforce Michigan’s ELCRA consistent with the First Amendment to protect the equal rights of all Michiganders.”
Wimmer explained that regarding the legality of Geiger’s position and any subsequent actions taken under the ELCRA, the matter will likely be litigated since the Supreme Court “opened the door to discrimination by business entities where ‘expressive speech’ is at issue.”
He noted that the 303 Creative decision “is not a blanket invitation to discriminate.”
But it’s this exact kind of discrimination that Lambda Legal Deputy Legal Director for Litigation Camilla Taylor told The Advocate that the court’s narrow ruling in 303 Creative opened the door to those who are opposed to the LGBTQ+ community seek ways to redefine how their work could be considered expressive.
“It’s predictable and frustrating that the salon owner would take the decision in 303 Creative as an invitation to discriminate,” Taylor said.
“The case is part of a pattern of the Supreme Court taking cases that concern discrimination against LGBT people and deciding them in a way unfavorable to the LGBT litigant, but doing so in a narrow way that is confined to the facts in a particular case such that it’s unlikely to have much of a doctrinal impact going forward,” she noted.
“Obviously, the salon owner is violating the law in Michigan, and there are any number of reasonable responses to that that won’t violate the Constitution and that can hold the owner to account.”
Despite the ruling, she said, it was very narrow and limited to situations of paid speech.
“The court was clear in its decision that this is not going to be true of the vast majority of commercial businesses,” Taylor added. “The court equated the wedding website designer’s work to speech writers and fine arts commissions, and the court framed it and as part and parcel of past precedent, not as changing the law.”
Equality Michigan's executive director Erin Knott echoed that sentiment.
“I guess I’m grateful when business owners out themselves as bigots,” she said of her initial reaction to Geiger’s bigotry. “Then we know where we should not invest our hard-earned dollars and resources.”
She also said that the 303 Creative decision does not give businesses carte blanche to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people. Knott emphasized that the Supreme Court’s customized expressive services test decision does not undermine Michigan’s Elliot Larsen Civil Rights Act protections.
Taylor advises LGBTQ+ individuals who experience discrimination to seek legal remedies and work with organizations like Lambda Legal and other civil rights organizations working to protect people’s rights.
“Michigan’s ELCRA remains available to defend the civil rights of all Michigan residents,” Wimmer noted. “The Department of Attorney General will continue to fight to protect the equal rights of all Michiganders.”