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Hopes of adding LGBT protections to civil rights law dashed as focus pivots to politics

Democrats in Lansing are not waiting any longer to push civil rights protections for gays, lesbians, and transgender people.

And the fact that Democrats are now out in front, signals this is no longer about adopting a policy, this is now political.

For several sessions, Democrats have introduced legislation to add LGBT protections to Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act. But last year they were persuaded to wait by civil rights groups who at long last saw a policy success in their grasp. That’s if they could get a Republican to take the lead (because, of course, the GOP runs the show in Lansing).

This week, however, those hopes essentially fell apart as prospective Republican co-sponsors bailed, and GOP leaders put unacceptable conditions on taking up the bill.

Now, the sole, lonely Republican publicly backing LGBT rights in the civil rights law, says he has not given up. “We’re still working and talking with colleagues and educating,” said Republican state Representative Frank Foster. Interestingly enough, as wetalked about last month on It's Just Politics, Foster lost his primary in August to a more socially conservative Republican. There's continued debate over whether or not  his loss was do in part because of his support for adding LGBT rights to Elliott-Larsen.

Meanwhile, Foster is not getting a lot of support from Republican leaders. “Speaker Bolger believes that discrimination is wrong, and people should be hired and fired based on their work ethic and their merits, and their work performance. People should not be discriminated against for any reason. At the same time, he wants to be careful that we aren’t doing anything that would force someone to violate their religious teachings, their religious beliefs. And so until he can find a balance and find a way that balance can be struck through legislation, he’s not prepared to vote on anything,” said Ari Adler, spokesman for Republican state House Speaker Jase Bolger.

So it’s pretty plain if this is going to happen, it’s going to happen without a Republican majority. It will have to be mostly Democrats with a few Republican crossovers. In fact, in the House, all 50 Democrats, plus the one independent have co-sponsored the bill. In the Senate, 11 of the 12 Democrats are on board.

But Republicans typically don’t allow a vote unless a majority of the majority supports it.

And don’t forget the House Republican caucus will, in all likelihood, be a more socially conservative bunch in the coming session , making the prospect of an Elliott-Larsen update highly unlikely under GOP control over the next two years.

Which brings us to another issue. A political one. Democrats would like to bring the LGBT community more firmly into their fold, and convince gay rights voters that bipartisanship on LGBT issues is essentially futile.

In fact, there was frustration in some corners that the LGBT political community made the strategic decision to wait until 2016 on a ballot campaign to reverse Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage. If the courts don’t deal with it first. It was a strategic decision to wait for the higher-turnout presidential campaign year, which improves their prospects for success.

But, in this election cycle, it might have been the rare issue big enough to help draw out Democratic voters who might otherwise stay home (the way many thought about the possibility of having a minimum wage increase on the ballot).

It’s going to be a big issue in November: who does a better job of getting out their voters.
In the meantime, this may be the best chance that LGBT civil rights advocates will have for years to get their update of Elliott-Larsen, but the message this week was they’re not willing to walk it back a whole lot.

Zoe Clark is Michigan Public's Political Director. In this role, Clark guides coverage of the state Capitol, elections, and policy debates.
Rick Pluta is Senior Capitol Correspondent for the Michigan Public Radio Network. He has been covering Michigan’s Capitol, government, and politics since 1987.
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