During their first hearing of the year, the Michigan Senate Committee on Civil Rights, Judiciary and Public Safety listened Thursday to LGBTQ+ lawmakers, advocates and a few opponents to the bill that aims to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA).

“There was a time when our community had very few outlets, and it was incumbent upon us to express who we were alone,” Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) said during the hearing. “And to get to the point that we are here, 50 years later, a week removed from a governor’s State of the State where an Elliott-Larsen amendment was brought up and received the longest and largest applause, is quite a journey.”

 Jeremy Moss | Courtesy photo 

Senate Bill 4, introduced by Moss last month, would amend the ELCRA and codify into law protections against discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation.

The state Supreme Court ruled in July that the ELCRA prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation.

The committee, which was recently renamed to include “civil rights” in the title, heard from state leaders and advocates including Moss; state Rep. Jason Hoskins (D-Southfield); Luke Londo, the Hazel Park mayor pro tem and a member of the Michigan Civil Rights Commission; Jay Kaplan, an ACLU of Michigan staff attorney; and Erin Knott, the executive director of Equality Michigan.

Another speaker was Donna Stephens, the wife of the late Aimee Stephens, a transgender woman from Ferndale whose case of workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity became the first-ever transgender-rights case taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Aimee Stephens died in May 2020, just over a month before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that protections against sex discrimination is protected under the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“I truly believe that Aimee’s physical decline was related to the loss of her job,” Donna Stephens told the committee. “The cost and the harms of discrimination are both real and felt by people like Aimee.”

Hoskins also introduced a similar bill, House Bill 4003, in the House last month.

“This legislation not only expands civil rights to the LGBTQ community and takes the crucial steps necessary to make our state more inclusive and equitable, but it’s also a smart move for us for economic growth and prosperity in our state,” Hoskins said. “As the governor stated in her State of the State, ‘bigotry is bad for business.’ Individuals and companies are prioritizing inclusivity and diversity in their decision making. And there’s a reason for that.”

Hoskins noted a letter sent out last week by business leaders from across the state urging the Legislature to expand the ELCRA, calling it a “business issue” and saying the amendment helps Michigan businesses  “compete for the best and the brightest talent and retain our local graduates.”

Two women, Libby Ranshaw and Kathy Busard, who opposed the bill also spoke to the committee Thursday and made connections between protections for transgender people and sexual assault against “biological women,” an inaccurate representation of transgender people.

However, Democrats on the committee did not hesitate to correct the speakers.

“The issues of sexual assault and issues of domestic violence are are very real, very important. And as a lawmaker who’s worked on both of those issues, I assure you that our committee will be working very diligently on those issues,”  said committee Chair Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit). “However, I am horrified that you would bring those issues together in conversation about this bill.”

Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor) said the speakers’ testimony was “offensive.”

“And I thought it was offensive to the many, many people who are victims of sexual violence because they are LGBTQ,” Irwin said. “Those are the victims who we are trying to protect here by making sure that we respect the rights and freedoms of all people, regardless of whether or not some people think they deserve those equal rights or not.”

Sen. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake) shared concerns that this bill is being rushed through committee.

“I’ve seen over and over where there was an emotional issue and it blasted through and then we had to go back and say, ‘well, geez, we didn’t think of that, we didn’t think of that,’” Runestad said.

Chang responded by saying this bill had been in the making for 50 years when the ELCRA was first enacted in 1973.

“I think this legislation has been pretty well thought through,” she said.

At the start of the meeting, Moss told the committee he wanted to dedicate the hearing to former Republican Rep. Jim Dressel, who first attempted to amend the ELCRA in 1983 to include protections for sexual orientation.

“From the beginning, starting during the first Elliot-Larsen hearing process in 1973, 50 years ago, there has been a dogged, yet unsuccessful effort to add sexual orientation and gender identity and expression among those protected classes,” Moss said.

The committee will continue to take testimony on this bill next week.