Detroit Free Press
March 1, 2023
The Michigan Senate took the first major step in expanding the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act Wednesday, passing a provision to prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. The bill will have to pass through the Michigan House of Representatives before it can be signed into law.
The chamber passed Senate Bill 4 23-15 Wednesday, marking the first time a bill to include sexual orientation and gender identity as classes protected from discrimination in Michigan had passed in either chamber of the Legislature. Republican Sens. Ruth Johnson, R-Holly, Michael Webber, R-Rochester Hills and Joseph Bellino, R-Monroe, joined Democrats in voting to pass the bill.
Specifically, the bill would bar firing someone, evicting them or otherwise discriminating against them because they are a member of the LGBTQ community.
Sen. Jeremy Moss, D-Southfield, presided over the vote. Moss is the lead sponsor of SB 4 and the only openly gay member of the Senate.
Advocates for ELCRA’s expansion say adding protections for the LGBTQ community is not only a victory for civil rights in Michigan, but also a boon for businesses’ ability to attract and retain talent for their workforces.
“Bigotry is bad for business,” Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said during her State of the State address in January, advocating for the expansion. Moss echoed Whitmer’s comments during a committee hearing on the bill Feb. 9. At that same hearing, Detroit Regional Chamber Vice President of Government Relations Brad Williams told lawmakers including protections for LGBTQ individuals was “critical to our competitiveness.”
Should the bill pass through the House and be signed into law, which is expected given Democrats’ control of the chamber and Whitmer’s support of the bill, it would codify a Michigan Supreme Court opinion from last year which stated ELCRA bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The chamber declined to adopt an amendment introduced by Sen. Jim Runestad, R-White Lake, that would have amended the bill to include protections for religious orientation. Runestad said otherwise the expansion could lead to religious discrimination.
“If we pass SB4 without clear protections for those practicing their faith … SB4’s new protections may be used as a sword, rather than a shield,” he said. Some faith groups in Michigan had supported Runestad’s amendment, but other faith leaders had testified in support of the bill unamended during committee hearings.
Moss criticized the amendment as ill-informed, saying it would essentially circumvent the purpose of SB 4. He detailed a story about getting kicked out of a Coney Island because the owner “didn’t want f****** in their restaurant.”
“This amendment gives the restaurant owner to do it all over again,” Moss said.
The amendment failed, 17-21. ELCRA, currently as law, prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion.
A series of Democratic senators spoke in support of the bill, including Sen. Veronica Klinefelt, D-Eastpointe, who said Republican opposition to expanding ELCRA directly affected her son.
“I’ve had to listen to (senators) say who my son is and how he was born violates the conscience of others,” she said.
Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, gave a lengthy speech opposing the bill, saying “we are looking at making our government advance an agenda that’s contrary to the best interest of our society.”
Previous legislative efforts to expand civil rights protections to include the LGBTQ community have stalled in Michigan. SB 4 is a re-introduction of an identical bill from the previous legislative session, per the non-partisan Senate Fiscal Agency. Under the prior Republican-controlled legislature, the bill never received a hearing.