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Unequal by law: being gay in Michigan (an update)

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It would be foolish to do, but Michigan business owners could put up a “Straights Only” sign in the window. It would be legal. In fact, it’s legal for just about any business to turn away  gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender citizens.

Under the leadership of Michigan House Speaker Jase Bolger and Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville, the Legislature has rejected the advice of business leaders and others who think LGBT people ought to be treated like every other citizen.

Instead, restaurants can refuse to serve a gay person. An apartment complex can reject a gay person’s application. LGBT people can be refused taxi rides, hotel stays, employment, admission to private schools. A business may fire an LGBT person because of sexual orientation or expression. You can be fired if you’re just perceived to be gay.

Some religious leaders argue protecting the civil rights of gay people could violate religious freedom. A commonly cited example is a Christian baker who would be opposed to making a cake for a same-sex couple’s wedding. They say they should not be forced by law to do something they feel would violate the tenets of their faith.

Critics call this a right to discriminate.

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The Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act protects Michigan citizens from discrimination regardless of religion, race, color, national origin, age, height, weight, familial status, or marital status.

The Legislature had come up with a pair of proposals. One would have added sexual orientation and sexual expression to the Elliot-Larsen protections. The other would have protected sincerely held religious beliefs that ultimately might conflict with those LGBT protections.

Some legislators just couldn’t quite bring themselves to accept that transgender people are the kind of people who ought to be treated like everyone else. A bill that limited protection to gay, lesbian and bisexual people was offered instead. It didn’t get a lot of support among the Legislature’s most conservative members. Liberals didn’t support it because it failed to protect transgender people.

Eventually, state House Speaker Jase Bolger declared LGBT civil rights protections are dead in this session. At the Capitol, Michigan Public Radio Network Bureau Chief Rick Pluta says in the lame-duck legislature anything could still happen, including a revival of the bill. Pluta says the LGBT bill is "still only mostly dead."  

The accompanying proposal, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, is still alive and moving ahead.

Every time I’ve written or spoken about lack of basic rights of LGBT citizens in Michigan, a lot of people express surprise and then outrage. Nine out of ten people think LGBT people are already protected.

They’re not.

Three out of four people believe they should be.

They’re still not.

Being gay in Michigan means you can be treated unequally under the law. And it appears any chance of those protections in the future will be in conflict with the religious freedom protections.

In that eventuality, the courts will have to decide if a person’s religious beliefs are sincere enough to refuse service to an LGBT citizen.

Ultimately, that might be a scenario religious people regret. The idea that a government judge might determine whether a person is faithful enough to claim a religious belief might prove to be a heavy cross to bear.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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