Metro Weekly

Michigan’s outgoing governor bans anti-LGBTQ discrimination by state contractors

Companies seeking state contracts or grants must promise not to discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity

Gov. Rick Snyder – Credit: Michigan Municipal League/flickr

As the final days of his governorship come to an end, Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has taken steps to protect LGBTQ people by issuing an executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity by state contractors.

Under the order, state departments and agencies must include language in new contracts prohibiting contractors from discriminating against LGBTQ employees, reports The Detroit News.  Companies that wish to obtain contracts, grants, or loans from the state must agree to those terms. (There is an exemption for nonprofit religious organizations, such as churches.)

“Michigan’s continued reinvention and economic growth depend on talented individuals choosing to live and work here,” Snyder wrote in the order. “It is essential for state government to be a leader in welcoming all people to our state and ensuring that everyone is treated fairly and with respect.”

In signing the order, Snyder, a Republican, noted that Michigan Civil Service Commission rules already prohibit departments from discriminating against state employees based on sexual orientation.

Michigan has no statewide law explicitly protecting LGBTQ people from discrimination in private employment, housing or public accommodations. But in May, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission ruled it would begin hearing complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity under provisions in the state’s current Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act that prohibit sex-based discrimination.

Jay Kaplan, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project, said he is glad to see Snyder address workplace bias, but thinks that the exemption for religious organizations is “problematic,” as it could be broadly interpreted to allow discrimination against employees of those organizations who are not acting in a ministerial role.

Kaplan says the ACLU is looking forward to working with incoming Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, to improve upon Snyder’s directive.

Snyder’s history on LGBTQ rights is mixed. While the governor initially promised to avoid fights over social issues when he was first elected, in 2015, he signed a so-called “conscience clause exemption” law allowing adoption and foster care agencies to refuse to place children with same-sex couples or other parents whose religion or lifestyle they find objectionable. He was also a defendant in a challenge brought by LGBTQ couples challenging Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage, and came under fire after naming a pastor known for his long history of anti-LGBTQ activism to the state’s Civil Rights Commission.

But Snyder has also encouraged state lawmakers to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBTQ residents — something that Whitmer, his successor, supports.

Several Michigan Republicans criticized the Civil Rights Commission after it expanded its interpretation of “sex discrimination” to include instances of LGBTQ discrimination when it came to deciding which complaints to hear. Republican Attorney General Bill Schuette, the GOP’s candidate for governor, issued a legal opinion disputing the notion that LGBTQ residents are protected under Elliott-Larsen.

Yet despite Schuette’s opinion, the state civil rights department has continued investigating allegations of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, although it has not made any final rulings.

Snyder’s order is not binding on the Attorney General’s office or the Secretary of State’s office, but he has encouraged both to comply. The Attorney-General-elect, Democrat Dana Nessel, who is an out lesbian, is expected to comply with that directive and push for greater investigations into LGBTQ discrimination.

Erin Knott, the interim executive director of Equality Michigan, praised Snyder’s decision to issue the directive, telling the Detroit News that it “represents an important step forward in making Michigan a safe, fair and equal place for all of us.” But Knott also noted that Snyder’s order “does not substitute the need for legislative action,” and indicated the organization would be pushing state lawmakers in Lansing to approve LGBTQ legal protections during the 2019 legislative session.

“We look forward to working with the new legislature in 2019, leveraging today’s executive order, to pass an amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act,” Knott said.

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

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