The Michigan Catholic Conference’s efforts to water down new LGBTQ+ protections in the state were ultimately unsuccessful as new non-discrimination legislation was signed into law this month.
The new law, passed by legislators and signed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, expands Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, first passed in 1977, to include discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation when it comes to many areas of life, including employment, public accommodations, and housing. The law already “prohibits discrimination in employment, housing, education, and public accommodations and services based on religion, race, skin color, national origin, age, height, weight, familial status, and marital status,” according to Michigan Advance.
The Michigan Catholic Conference (MCC), the public policy arm of the state’s seven dioceses, proposed the addition of language to the law that would allow for exceptions on the basis of religious belief. The proposed language would have effectively exempted both religious organizations and individuals from adhering to the act. Michigan Advance reported that “based on the language the MCC is proposing, religious groups could discriminate based on sexual orientation and gender identity, as well as sex in general, and not face legal consequences.”
Michigan Democrats, now in charge of the state’s legislature for the first time in almost four decades, have been clear that MCC’s proposal is a non-starter. State Senator Jeremy Moss, the law’s sponsor, told Michigan Advance: “This is not going to be a big fight; this isn’t going to be a fight at all.” That proved true as the law, without the bishops’ desired religious exemptions, passed in both chambers along party lines and was signed by the governor this month.
After the Senate passed the bill on March 10th, MCC lamented the decision as a defeat for religious liberty. Tom Hickson, MCC’s vice president for public policy, claimed:
“By failing to strike a balance and voting against amendments to ensure religious organizations are not targeted for their long-standing religious beliefs about marriage and gender differences, the Senate has signed off on creating a class of citizens against which discrimination and targeted litigation will be likely.”
Civil rights advocates, however, interpreted the vote as a triumph for non-discrimination. Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan’s LGBTQ+ Project, said that the MCC’s proposed amendments “would gut civil rights protections…What they’re proposing is … an incredibly broad-based license to discriminate in the name of religion.”
Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, the state’s LGBTQ+ rights organization, identified examples of discrimination allowed by the MCC proposal, including social workers turning away LGBTQ+ clients, or pharmacies refusing to fill HIV treatment prescriptions.
While the fight over this particular piece of legislation is concluded, MCC has signaled its intention to continue pushing against LGBTQ+ rights. Its biennial “Blueprint for the Common Good,” released in late February, identifies “Protecting religious liberty and the freedom to serve” as a key legislative priority.
Opposition to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act’s expansion is just the most recent battle in MCC’s longstanding campaign to oppose legislation protecting LGBTQ+ people. Michigan Advance reports that in 2021, MCC “spent more than $200,000 funding a group opposing a ballot measure to expand the non-discrimination act to LGBTQ+ people.”
—Ariell Simon (she/her), March 27, 2023