LGBTQ people living in Michigan can count themselves the sudden and fortunate beneficiaries of new legal protections against discrimination. It’s all thanks to a vote taken Monday by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to interpret the state’s existing laws to include LGBTQ people.
In a 5-0 vote with one abstention, the commission issued an interpretive statement that “sex,” as protected under the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, includes discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity as well. These protections extend to employment, housing, education, and public accommodations, effectively protecting LGBTQ people in most of public life.
Agustin V. Arbulu, Director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, praised the commission for their courage. “Beginning tomorrow morning, the department will begin processing complaints of sex discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity,” he confirmed in a statement.
Currently, less than half of the states have laws which explicitly protect the LGBTQ community from discrimination. In 2014, Michigan considered legislation that would have protected residents on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, but it was paired with a “religious freedom” bill that would have permitted such discrimination to continue for religious reasons. At the time there were concerns that the discriminatory bill might even pass without the originally proposed protections, prompting lawmakers to consider a third bill that stripped out protections for the trans community. Ultimately, none of the three bills passed.
Federal courts are increasingly recognizing that discriminating against LGBTQ people constitutes discrimination on the basis of sex. Indeed, a recent decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit — which has jurisdiction over Michigan — motivated the commission to act. In that case, the Court ruled against a funeral home that had fired an employee for transitioning, concluding that the termination was discrimination on the basis of sex. The new interpretation borrows directly from that ruling.
Despite the precedent, the commission will likely face push-back. Last year, when they started considering the new interpretation, the Michigan state’s Attorney General’s office told the commission that it didn’t have the authority to re-interpret the law, warning that it could be subject to lawsuits.
Dan Levy, director of law and police for the Department of Civil Rights, said that he views the interpretation as one that simply gives LGBTQ people their day in court, and that the commission is prepared to handle such legal challenges. “We’re letting them into the judicial system, into the system of justice, and now they’re going to have to make their case,” he said.
Equality Michigan Executive Director Stephanie White cautioned that this doesn’t end the fight for a truly inclusive nondiscrimination law. “This is, at the end of the day, an interpretation of the law,” she said, “and to have it explicitly stated that in Michigan we will not discrimination against gay and trans people – that is still important.”