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MI Senate panel approves LGBTQ rights bill; floor vote expected next week

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Daniel James

Michigan’s already expansive civil rights law would also specify that those protections include LGBTQ people under legislation that cleared a state Senate committee Thursday.

Members of the crowd applauded as the bill was adopted by the Senate Civil Rights, Public Safety and Judiciary Committee on a party-line vote.

Senator Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), the bill sponsor, said this is long overdue and a welcome development to the LGBTQ+ community.

“What this signals to those people is they don’t have to suffer in silence and in the shadows anymore, that when they face a wrong that there’s a path to right it.”

Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act already allows people to file complaints over discrimination based on “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status.”

Moss’s bill would add “sexual orientation and gender identity or expression” to the law.

Moss said the legislation is a remedy for discrimination that “happens in the shadows.”

“This happens in the darkness,” he said. “People have to choose between keeping their job and living an authentic self, from keeping secure housing and living their authentic self.”

Before the committee vote, the focus of the hearing was on business support for expanding the law. Supporters include the Michigan Chamber of Commerce, the Detroit Regional Chamber of Commerce and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.

Andy Johnston of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce said business organizations have called for expanding the law for almost a decade.

“Everyone deserves to be included in Michigan’s economy,” he said. “It’s a business issue and a people issue.”

Brad Williams of the Detroit Regional Chamber said it’s an economic issue because businesses are competing with other states and regions for younger workers who are looking to locate in inclusive communities.

“We need to focus on a Michigan that is competitive economically and respects the human rights of all of its citizens,” he said.

But Tom Hickson of the Michigan Catholic Conference said the legislation puts religious institutions at risk. He asked the committee to approve a version with a wider religious exemption. He said 22 other states have adopted LGBTQ rights laws that include religious exemptions.

“Let’s avoid what we believe will take place if this legislation is signed into law without religious protections,” he said, “that more religious or non-profit groups will be taken into state court and possibly held liable because of their sincerely held and long-standing religious beliefs about marriage.”

The bill was adopted on a party-line vote with three Democrats voting to send the bill to the Senate floor. One Republican abstained and the other voted no.

Senator Jim Runested (R-White Lake) offered an amendment to add a religious exemption that was rejected.

“This is something that has been debated over years, is where is that balance?” he said. “I think this strikes as close a balance as we can get to try to protect the rights of all sides.”

The Senate is expected to vote on the bill next week and, with Democrats in control, will almost certainly pass it. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has said she is anxious to sign the bill.

Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987. His journalism background includes stints with UPI, The Elizabeth (NJ) Daily Journal, The (Pontiac, MI) Oakland Press, and WJR. He is also a lifelong public radio listener.
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