LANSING — The state’s civil rights law does not protect gay and transgender people from discrimination, Attorney General Bill Schuette said in a formal opinion issued Friday.
Attorney general opinions are binding on state agencies and officers in Michigan, unless overruled by a court.
Schuette’s opinion drew swift and sharp criticism from advocates for LGBT rights.
Schuette was asked to issue the opinion after the Michigan Civil Rights Commission voted in May to expand the commission’s interpretation of the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identification in employment, education, housing and real estate as well as use of public accommodations and public service.
Schuette’s opinion, addressed to Republican leaders in the state House and Senate, said the commission went too far and “the Commission’s interpretation conflicts with the Act’s plain language.”
The law bans discrimination based on sex, including discrimination based on pregnancy, and also bans sexual harassment. But it doesn’t specifically mention sexual orientation or sexual identity.
“Michigan’s Constitution entrusts the Legislature, and not executive agencies or commissions, with the authority to change, extend, or narrow statutes,” Schuette wrote.
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State law “prohibits discrimination based on sex but does not cover distinctions based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Schuette said. The commission’s ruling “is invalid.”
Though recent federal court rulings have interpreted “sex” to include sexual orientation, “these newer federal decisions … do not follow Michigan’s principles of statutory interpretation,” he said.
Groups such as Equality Michigan had expressed strong support for the commission’s decision to start taking complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity for the first time.
Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan, called on the state Civil Rights Commission to defend its interpretation in the face of Schuette’s opinion.
“While the attorney general continues to polish his anti-LGBT credentials in a contested gubernatorial race, today’s overreach cuts at the commission’s core constitutional authority, which should concern everyone,” White said in a news release.
Lonnie Scott, executive director of the liberal group Progress Michigan, said he finds the opinion Schuette issued disgusting.
“This means LGBTQ Michiganders still can be fired from their job and denied housing and public services,” Scott said. “Schuette is siding with discrimination and bigotry.”
Schuette is one of three Republican candidates for governor in the Aug. 7 primary.
Past attempts in the Legislature to amend the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act have failed due to opposition mostly from Republican lawmakers and attempts to tie any such change to a religious freedom law that would, for example, allow a baker to refuse to make a wedding cake for a gay couple on religious grounds.
Republican Gov. Rick Snyder has said he won’t sign such religious freedom legislation without amending the civil rights law to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation.
In 2014, then House Speaker Jase Bolger, R-Marshall, said a religious freedom bill must pass for him to lend his support to a law banning discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“Together they would achieve the necessary appropriate balance in Michigan.” Bolger said at the time.
“If these are both put in place, we will achieve the balance that I have long talked about, so people are not discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and people are free to practice their faith
Contact Paul Egan: 517-372-8660 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @paulegan4.