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LGBTQ activists call for clarity in state’s civil rights law

A string of rainbow flags against a blue sky

LGBT activists say the state’s civil rights law is too vague when it comes to discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.


Now they’re calling on the Michigan Civil Rights Commission to clarify the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act lists attributes people can’t discriminate for – like race, religion and sex.


“What we’re really asking is for our state Civil Rights Commission to do something that is consistent with what federal courts have done and what federal agencies have done,” said Jay Kaplan of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.


Equality Michigan and multiple other organizations, including the ACLU of Michigan, want the commission to issue an interpretative statement that says the prohibition against sex discrimination in the civil rights act includes protections against discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation.


Agustin Arbulu is the executive director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.


“Sex has not been thoroughly defined by the commission,” he said. “Though there has been an unwritten narrow approach taken to the definition of sex.”


That narrow definition has not included sexual orientation or gender identity, Arbulu said.


Kaplan said gender identity can be interpreted under the broader term “sex” and there is a precedent for that interpretation.


“There have been federal courts that have viewed discrimination against LGBT people to be a form of sex discrimination because it’s based on gender stereotyping,” he said.


Although any statements issued by the commission would be guidelines, Arbulu said, if the commission expands the meaning, the Civil Rights Department could take more discrimination cases based on sexual orientation.


The commission is taking public comments on the issue before taking further action. Public comments opened Tuesday and will stay open until August 15. You can email your comments to MCRC-Comments@michigan.gov. The commission will then explore the request further at their meeting on September 18.


Before becoming the newest Capitol reporter for the Michigan Public Radio Network, Cheyna Roth was an attorney. She spent her days fighting it out in court as an assistant prosecuting attorney for Ionia County. Eventually, Cheyna took her investigative and interview skills and moved on to journalism. She got her masters at Michigan State University and was a documentary filmmaker, podcaster, and freelance writer before finding her home with NPR. Very soon after joining MPRN, Cheyna started covering the 2016 presidential election, chasing after Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, and all their surrogates as they duked it out for Michigan. Cheyna also focuses on the Legislature and criminal justice issues for MPRN. Cheyna is obsessively curious, a passionate storyteller, and an occasional backpacker. Follow her on Twitter at @Cheyna_R
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