Metro Weekly

Michigan attorney general: LGBTQ people not protected by state civil rights law

Bill Schuette maintains that only the Michigan Legislature can amend state law to include LGBTQ protections

Bill Schuette (right) with Donald Trump – Photo: Shealah Craighead.

Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette has hit back against a ruling by the state’s Civil Rights Commission, accusing commissioners of overstepping their authority by deciding that Michigan’s civil rights law protects LGBTQ residents from discrimination.

Schuette, a candidate for governor, issued a legal opinion at the request of Republican legislative leaders, reports The Detroit News. State Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof (R-West Olive) and House Speaker Tom Leonard (R-DeWitt) asked Scheutte to investigate whether the Civil Rights Commission had usurped their authority by interpreting the provision prohibiting sex discrimination in the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 as applicable to instances where Michiganders are discriminated against based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

In his opinion, Schuette found that the Civil Rights Commission had overstepped its authority in May, when it opined that it would begin hearing complaints of alleged discrimination against LGBTQ individuals under that expanded interpretation of the statute.

Schuette said the commission’s interpretation is “invalid because it conflicts with the original intent of the Legislature as expressed in the plain language” of the state’s civil rights law.

Schuette notes that state agencies can interpret laws, but the interpretation “cannot be used to change the statute or to enforce the statute in a way that conflicts with the law’s plain meaning,” he wrote in the 19-page opinion.

Schuette also relied on historical precedent, noting that Michigan’s Republican legislators — who have either controlled the Senate every year since 1992 and the House for 19 of the 26 interceding years — have consistently refused to add nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ residents to the state’s civil rights law.

Federal courts, including the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which covers Michigan — have recently ruled that federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination prohibit discrimination against transgender people. But Schuette says that such rulings are “not consistent with Michigan’s principles of statutory interpretation,” where, under the state constitution, only the legislature can amend civil rights laws.

A Schuette spokeswoman told The Detroit News that the attorney general’s opinion is “binding on state government.” But Michigan’s director of the Department of Civil Rights has said the department will continue accepting and processing complaints of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, although it won’t begin investigating those complaints until after the commission provides them with guidance.

If investigations of those complaints ends, “then once again LGBT Michiganders are going to be the only people in our state who don’t have access to civil rights laws,” Stephanie White, the executive director of Equality Michigan, said in a statement. “And that, of course, will be a tragedy.”

White also accused Schuette of “using his office for partisan, personal gain,” referring to his bid for governor. The opinion drops just a month before Schuette faces three other Republicans in the Aug. 7 primary.

Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely said the attorney general’s opinion was based on a reading of the state Constitution.

But Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan’s LGBT Project, said Schuette has appeared to “cherry pick” cases to support his argument while ignoring federal decisions like the one decided by the 6th Circuit, where a funeral home was found guilty of sex discrimination when it fired a transgender employee after she announced her intention to transition.

“He wanted to reach the conclusion he reached,” Kaplan said. He also accused Schuette of “mischaracterizing” statutes and administrative rules that give the Civil Rights Commission the authority to render interpretive statements.

The Human Rights Campaign, which has launched a nationwide political campaign to elect pro-equality leaders to Congress and governorships, weighed in on Schuette’s latest opinion.

“Bill Schuette is unfit to serve as Attorney General, and this latest outrageous act proves once again that he cannot represent all Michiganders equally and fairly,” Amritha Venkataraman, HRC’s Michigan State Director, said in a statement. “AG Schuette has chosen to ignore legal precedent and leave thousands of LGBTQ Michganders at risk of discrimination.

“Numerous federal courts have determined 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 law, including Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act,” Venkataraman added. “HRC is on the ground working hard to elect pro-equality champions who support commonsense protections for  LGBTQ Michganders and ensure that Schuette never makes it to the governor’s mansion.”

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

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