MONDAY, July 20 — A widely celebrated ruling from the Supreme Court declares that existing federal civil rights law now protects gay, lesbian and transgender employees from workplace discrimination. But LGBTQ rights activists said legal adjustments must still be made to better ensure equal rights.
Fair & Equal Michigan, the organizers behind a statewide ballot initiative to amend the state’s Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act, plans to ensure the social playing field is level for all Michiganders regardless of their choice of gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.
And right now, organizers said, disparities still exist both in Michigan and across the country.
“There’s still a need for legislative change to ensure equal rights go beyond employment,” said Fair & Equal spokesman Josh Hovey. “This initiative would provide the LGBTQ community with full protections under law in education, housing and a broad array of public accommodations.”
The Supreme Court, in a 6-3 opinion, ruled last month that protections under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act applies to claims of gender identity and sexual orientation, providing clarified protection to LGBTQ employees from being fired or discriminated against on those bases alone.
The ruling, as interpreted by the American Civil Liberties Union, is a straightforward reading of the law: discriminating against someone because they’re gay or lesbian is sex discrimination. Notably, however, it left unaddressed whether employers have a religious right to discriminate.
It also failed to address discrimination outside of the workplace, in areas like education, housing, other key services and places of public accommodation. That’s where Fair & Equal Michigan plans to fill the gaps with some proposed amendments to the state’s civil rights laws.
The goal: expand the existing definition of “sex” in the state’s broader, anti-discrimination statute to include “gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression.” It would also formally amend the definition of “religion” under the law to include the “religious belief of an individual.”
Existing state law only prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, sex, height, weight and marital status. And while employment discrimination against LGBTQ people is now federally illegal, civil rights gaps still exist in housing and public accommodations, Hovey said.
“The SCOTUS ruling was a welcomed surprise, but there’s still work to be done,” Hovey added.
Cases docketed on the Supreme Court — like Fulton v. City of Philadelphia — are expected to address some of those lingering questions later this year, formally deciding whether religious objections behind a refusal to provide services to LGBTQ clients can be justified under law.
In the meantime, it’s better to beef up civil rights laws as much as possible, Hovey explained.
“It’s always better to have full protection under law,” Hovey added. “We need to have specific protections written into both federal and state law, so we’re tackling one this from all angles.”
Organizers have already collected more than 170,000 of the 340,000 signatures needed by early October to send the proposal to the state legislature. If lawmakers ignore or reject the changes, the language would head to the ballot in 2022 for voters to decide, Hovey explained.
The campaign also attracted a key endorsement from Business Leaders for Michigan, the executive roundtable organization representing the state’s largest employers. Additionally, Business Leaders announced a $100,000 contribution from their political action committee.
Major employers signed on to the initiative include Apple, Bells Brewing, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, Consumers Energy, Delta Dental, Dominos, Dow, DTE Energy, Fiat Chrysler, Ford, General Motors, Google, Kellogg, Jackson National Life, Chemical Bank and Whirpool.
Attempts to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act have started and failed during nearly every legislative session since the statute was passed in 1976. But organizers for months have suggested that shifting social perspectives may be enough to finally put changes into motion.
As a result of COVID-19, an initial May 27 filing deadline for the statewide petition was extended through October. Fair & Equal organizers have also been able to collect digital signatures in lieu of clipboard-style campaigning. More details are listed online at fairandequalmichigan.com.
Meanwhile, the ACLU and other activists are calling on Congress to further affirm civil rights for the LGBTQ community with the passage of the Equality Act, which carries much broader and consistent protections in areas like credit, federally funded programs, housing and education.
The ACLU has also endorsed the Fair & Equal Michigan campaign.
“This week’s SCOTUS decision moves our country forward and affirms legal protections for LGBTQ people, but there’s still work to do. We don’t rest until LGBTQ people are granted every right and protection,” the ACLU of Michigan posted on Twitter in response to the recent ruling.