Metro Weekly

Michigan Civil Rights Commission: LGBTQ people are protected by law banning sex discrimination

Commission's action may trigger lawsuit, as the Attorney General claims only the legislature can make such a change

In a landmark ruling, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission will begin hearing complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the commission voted 5-0-1 on Monday to expand their interpretation of a provision prohibiting sex-based discrimination in Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.

Under the expanded interpretation, “sex discrimination” not only applies to instances where people are discriminated against based on their biological sex at birth, but because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The ordinance currently contains explicit protections based on race, religion, sex and other characteristics that prohibit discrimination in employment, education, housing, real estate, public accommodations, and public service.

The reinterpretation was brought to a vote by former State Sen. Alma Wheeler Smith, of Ann Arbor, and was supported by many of the state’s top LGBTQ organizations.

Two of the commission’s eight members were absent, and Commissioner Ira Combs — a bishop whose nomination to the commission garnered controversy due to his past anti-LGBTQ activism — abstained.

“We’re thrilled, obviously. This is an important step for LGBT people in the state of Michigan to be treated equally under the law,” Stephanie White, the executive director of Equality Michigan, said in response to the news that the commission will investigate allegations of anti-LGBTQ discrimination.

“Yesterday, LGBT people could be fired and may or may not have any recourse or the protection of the Department of Civil Rights,” White added. “[This decision] opens up a path for possible justice. Importantly, it also provides us the opportunity to have a full picture of discrimination — record the cases, track them, see them, investigate them more fully to be taken seriously and to be seen.”

But the move is likely to generate pushback from the Attorney General’s Office, which has taken the position that the commission does not have the right to reinterpret “sex discrimination” as covering sexual orientation or gender identity. Rather, the office says, that power is left to the state legislature, which would have to amend the civil rights act to explicit protect those characteristics.

Ron Robinson, an assistant in the AG’s office, told the commission last September that it would be subject to a lawsuit if it approved the new interpretation.

But Vicki Levengood, the communications director for the State Department of Civil Rights, said the commissioners have received opinions from other attorneys that conflict with the opinion from the Attorney General.

“The commissioners have received from multiple attorneys the opinion that they do have the legal authority to issue that statement,” Levengood said in a statement. “And they voted in favor of doing so.”

With the vote, Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission becomes the first state commission to find that discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of sex discrimination. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled similarly in other cases that prohibitions on sex-based discrimination within Title VII of the Civil Rights Act can apply to LGBTQ people. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers Michigan, has also ruled that federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination also prohibit anti-transgender discrimination.

LGBTQ groups celebrated the milestone, with the Human Rights Campaign calling it a “welcome step forward in the fight for equality.”

“Consistent with federal courts across the country, today’s decision affirms that discrimination against an individual based on their sexual orientation or gender identity is fundamentally a form of sex discrimination — which is prohibited both under federal laws, such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and Michigan’s Elliott Larsen Civil Rights Act,” HRC Legal Director Sarah Warbelow said in a statement. “We commend local advocates, including Equality Michigan and the ACLU of Michigan, for their tireless work to ensure that every person is treated equally under the law.”

Michigan is one of 32 states in the country that lack explicit, comprehensive protections for LGBTQ people from various forms of discrimination, making the commission’s decision even more significant.

“This decision is a welcome and important step forward for Michigan,” Masen Davis, the CEO of Freedom for All Americans, said in a statement. “Today’s vote makes it just a little easier for LGBTQ people in the Great Lakes State to live and work with dignity and respect. But our work isn’t finished — we must continue working together to update Michigan’s state law so that all LGBTQ residents are fully and explicitly protected from discrimination.”

John Riley is the local news reporter for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at jriley@metroweekly.com

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