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Activists weigh LGBT ballot drive after Supreme Court ruling

LGBTQ Flag photo
Ludovic Bertron | Wikimedia | CC BY 2.0

Organizers of a Michigan ballot drive to prohibit discrimination against gay, lesbian and transgender people said Monday they were evaluating whether to continue following a major victory in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Fair and Equal Michigan launched the ballot effort in January after years of being unable to pass LGBT protections through the Republican-led state Legislature. The proposal would change a 1976 civil rights law that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations.

The Supreme Court ruled Monday that a key provision of a 1964 federal law that bars job discrimination due to sex encompasses bias against LGBT workers. The 6-3 decision does not directly affect discrimination in housing or public facilities.

One of the lawsuits was brought by a Detroit-area transgender woman who was fired by a funeral home after she no longer wanted to be recognized as a man. Aimee Stephens died last month.

Trevor Thomas, co-chairman of the ballot committee, called the ruling “great news” and said the group’s lawyer would advise “how it will impact people in the state of Michigan and our campaign moving forward.”

Since 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission has processed complaints based on sexual orientation and gender identity after releasing an interpretive statement that said such discrimination is a form of sex discrimination. State Attorney General Dana Nessel, a Democrat, told the panel last year it was not bound by her Republican predecessor’s opinion that Michigan law does not ban LGBT discrimination and that it would be up to legislators to change the statute to include such protections.

“We are gratified that, at least in the area of employment, the court has now ruled that the same interpretation applies to federal law,” said Stacie Clayton, chairwoman of the commission. She noted that the Trump administration on Friday overturned Obama-era protections for transgender people against sex discrimination in health care.

“Until courts at all levels recognize and affirm the rights of LGBTQ individuals to be free of discrimination in every aspect of their lives, we have work to do,” Clayton said.

Sen. Jeremy Moss and Rep. Jon Hoadley, Democrats who are among the first openly gay members of the Legislature, said the “decision — from a conservative-led court, no less — ought to propel the Michigan Legislature to carry on this work and extend these employment protections to those in Michigan facing housing and public accommodation discrimination.”

A spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey said his office had “no immediate plans for action in response to the ruling.” A message seeking comment was left with House Speaker Lee Chatfield.

Nessel said rather than attempt to use her office’s opinion process “with its limited scope,” she hopes to work with the Civil Rights Commission, which investigates allegations of illegal discrimination.

“While the state of Michigan law may be less than clear, this work will bring this important issue before Michigan courts,” she said. “Eventually, the highest court in this state needs to consider this issue and resolve it once and for all.”