Could Michigan Pass a Gay-Only Nondiscrimination Bill?

Could Michigan Pass a Gay-Only Nondiscrimination Bill?

Two Republican lawmakers in Michigan today introduced an amendment to a pending nondiscrimination bill that removes all protections against discrimination based on gender identity and expression. 

National and state LGBT groups are fuming over what Equality Michigan labeled an "inadequate update" to the state's Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, enacted in 1976. As it stands, the act prohibits discrimination in employment and housing based on race, sex, religion, age, height, weight, marital or family status, and national origin. 

Earlier today, House Speaker Jase Bolger and Rep. Frank Foster, both Republicans, introduced legislation that would amend the state's civil rights law to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, without mentioning gender identity or expression, reports the The Detroit News. This is the final week when lawmakers may introduce new bills or amendments to be considered in the legislature's late session, reports BuzzFeed legal editor Chris Geidner

The newly introduced bill stands in sharp contrast to a comprehensive bill introduced earlier this year by Democratic representative Sam Singh, which sought to add the words "sexual orientation and gender identity" to the state's civil rights laws. 

The comprehensive bill has been nicknamed the "five-word" bill, while the approach that only protects on the basis of sexual orientation has been nicknamed the "two-word" bill.

Just last week Michigan's Republican governor called on the legislature to take up debate on the effort to update the state's Civil Rights Act, according to The New Civil Rights Movement. In a subsequent statement to the Detroit Free Press following the two-word bill's introduction, a spokeswoman for Gov. Rick Snyder said, "The governor has long said discrimination is wrong, plain and simple, and has encouraged this discussion to take place." The spokeswoman did not address the governor's views on the two-word bill compared to the five-word bill. 

"By deciding to leave gender identity and gender expression out of the bill, the sponsors of this bill have handed those who wish to discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people a huge gift," Equality Michigan executive director Emily Dievendorf  said in a statement. "Either intentionally or naively, this bill accomplishes none of its stated goals. We have no intention of leaving the transgender community behind. … Today's bill is an unnecessary and wasteful effort to steal attention and credit away from a far more effective bill introduced earlier this year in both the Michigan House and Senate. Equality Michigan, our membership, and our coalition partners will not accept or ignore legislation which not only splits our community up and leaves transgender people behind, but does not even deliver on its promises."

If the scenario sounds vaguely familiar, that's because it's eerily similar to the 2007 debacle that arose when Democratic lawmakers in the U.S. House, led by out representative Barney Frank, introduced an amendment to the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act that only included protections for discrimination based on sexual orientation, not gender identity. The continued endorsement of some national LGBT groups, including, at the time, the Human Rights Campaign, sparked a massive fissure among activists, as some felt that politicians had sacrificed protections for transgender people in the interest of political expediency. Regardless, the bill failed to make it to the president's desk — though it's questionable whether George W. Bush would have signed such a bill, anyway. 

Notably, HRC was one of the first organizations to denounce the amended, gay-only bill in Michigan, reports BuzzFeed's Geidner. Calling any legislation that does not protect citizens from discrimination based on their actual or perceived gender identity, expression, or sexual orientation "unacceptable," HRC issued a scathing statement Wednesday afternoon. 

"We absolutely refuse to leave the transgender community behind in non-discrimination legislation," said Marty Rouse, HRC’s national field director. "It is imperative that both sexual orientation and gender identity be included in any amendment to the state’s civil rights act. It is the only acceptable option, and we steadfastly oppose any amendment that excludes gender identity. HRC and our partners will work tirelessly to either amend Rep. Foster's bill or pass Rep. Singh’s fully inclusive legislation introduced earlier in the year. No Michigander should risk being fired, face discrimination in housing, or be refused service at a restaurant because of who they are or who they love."

It's been a big month for LGBT Michiganders, who on November 6 saw the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit become the first federal appellate court to uphold bans on same-sex marriage, in a consolidated case addressing Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, and Kentucky. Attorneys for the same-sex couples who sued for the freedom to marry in those cases have already promised to appeal the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

Then, on the same day that Republicans introduced the "two-word" nondiscrimination bill, a federal court struck down a state law that denied equal access to benefits to same-sex domestic partners of state employees. The Washington Blade reports that U.S. District Judge David Lawson determined the Public Employee Domestic Partner Benefit Restriction Act violated the U.S. Constitution's promise of equal protection and due process. Gov. Rick Snyder signed the act into law in 2011, forbidding all institutions that receive state tax dollars from extending health insurance benefits to "non-related adults living in the same home as a state employee," according to the Blade. Wednesday's decision from Judge Lawson lifts a stay he had placed on his ruling, thereby prohibiting the state from enforcing the ban on domestic partner benefits. 

Lawson's ruling referenced the Sixth Circuit's decision to uphold Michigan's ban on marriage equality, notes the Blade.

"It is one thing to say that states may cleave to the traditional definition of marriage as a means of encouraging biologically complimentary couples to stay together and raise the offspring they produce," wrote Lawson. "It is quite another to say that a state may adopt a narrow definition of family, and pass laws that penalize those unions and households that do not conform."

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