Over 46 years, activists, leaders, and community changed Michigan and transformed the landscape, making justice possible for ELCRA.
Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) was first passed in 1976 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of “religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status, or marital status” in employment, housing, education, and access to public accommodations. Since it was signed into law 46 years ago, activists have been working endlessly to make sure that those protections are expanded to protect everybody. After decades of activism, on March 16, 2023, Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed Senate Bill 4, codifying protections for LGBTQ+ Michiganders in ELCRA. This accomplishment has passed through generations of leaders, many configurations of legislators, and impacted countless lives.
There are currently over 400 anti-trans bills moving across the United States. That’s twice the amount introduced last year and that inspires us to continue to push hard and as fast as we can here in Michigan to move good LGBTQ+ policy. It’s an opportunity that we don’t take lightly in this moment.– Erin Knott, Equality Michigan Executive Director
Among those activists, there was Jeff Montgomery, one of the founders of the Triangle Foundation, now Equality Michigan (EQMI). After the murder of his partner, Michael, in 1984, Montgomery began to engage in LGBTQ+ advocacy. EQMI soon expanded to include work on discrimination cases, and then political advocacy following the closure of the Michigan Organization for Human Rights. Jeff identified that an amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include protections for LGBTQ+ people was essential to equal rights for LGBTQ+ Michiganders. To this day, EQMI Department of Victim Services (DVS) sees clients who experience discrimination in housing, public accommodations, and employment at a staggering amount. While we provide resources, guidance, and support, for many years there were no protections or legal support for our clients. The historic passage of Senate Bill 4 means that not only can we protect others from needing our services, but have options and legal protections to support them.
There were many factors that played a role in achieving the ELCRA amendment, including the end of gerrymandering in Michigan and the Hate Won’t Win coalition. The redistricting gave a prime opportunity to make sure voices were equally heard. So on June 3, 2022, Equality Michigan, HRC, Affirmations, and numerous pro-equality in-state partners, launched an unprecedented coalition, #HateWontWin, to elevate equality as a key decision point for voters in 2022. This 1-of-a-kind grassroots movement of local community centers, state and local advocacy organizations, and national partners collaborated to make sure LGBTQ+ voices are not silenced. A combination of door knocks, phone calls, digital communication, and targeted work in the Bay City region led to bipartisan support from Democrats and Republicans alike that serve that area. All of this, and innumerous other factors, combined gave us the pro-equality majority in Michigan that made it possible to finally pass the ELCRA amendment. It also established LGBTQ+ voters and our allies as a powerful political force in Michigan, and one that should be prioritized by the new legislature.
Expanding ELCRA was a key priority to the new democratic Michigan. During Governor Whitmer’s 2023 State of the State, Gov. Whitmer shared outward support in supporting an ELCRA amendment. “Let’s repeal outdated laws restricting who you can marry, and let’s expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act.” The Governor continued, “so you can’t be fired or evicted for who you are, how you identify, or for who you love.” She also mentioned repealing the outdated law that bans same-sex marriage in Michigan. As it stands, if SCOTUS overturns Obergefell v. Hodges, same-sex marriage would become illegal in our state. EQMI collected more than 3,700 signatures in a petition to lawmakers to amend ELCRA in Michigan.
My message for people across the country is that our community leaders in Michigan see you. Your tireless fight and passion are heard, and your energy has been with us every step of the way. Through you and for you, we are stressing the importance of now. Equality Michigan, the Human Rights Campaign and the entire Hate Won’t Win coalition are inspired to push as hard and as fast as we can here in Michigan, to move good LGBTQ+ policy with this pro-equality legislature, while continuing to stamp out the genocidal and inflammatory rhetoric of extremists and their related attempts to turn back the clock on our rights.– Erin Knott, Equality Michigan Executive Director
Senator Jeremy Moss, and Representative Jason Hoskins introduced the ELCRA amendment on the opening day of the 102nd Michigan Legislature, both openly gay Democrats who have been long-time advocates for LGBTQ+ rights. Despite widespread support among legislators, it was not all smooth sailing. Numerous religious exemptions were introduced, notably, one by the Michigan Catholic Conference that redefined “sex” in the bill, threatening not just LGBTQ+ rights, but also recognized protections for Michigan women.
Religious freedom is a fundamental right in the United States protected under the constitution, but religious exemptions can limit the rights of some of the most vulnerable people. State and federal case law has long recognized that discrimination based on sex includes sexual harassment, gender-based discrimination, and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Proposed amendments dramatically reduce Michigan residents’ protections against sex discrimination and would be a massive setback for women, LGBTQ+ people, and all Michigan residents. LGBTQ+ individuals and religions are not adversaries, but a small proportion uses their faith as a way to justify systematic oppression.
To counteract the notion that religious exemptions were necessary to pass an ELCRA amendment, EQMI organized 75+ religious leaders to sign on in support of an exemption-free ELCRA amendment, because everyone deserves equality. EQMI also worked with legislators and educated them on why religious exemptions were harmful. Ultimately, the bill passed without religious exemptions.
It took months after the bill’s introduction for the ELCRA amendment to make it through the Senate and House. It started in the Senate and passed 23-15. It continued to the House of Representatives final vote was 64-45. The sessions, like most, were filled with moving speeches from those in support and counter-arguments from the opposition. What was different from most sessions was the applause and cheers as the bill passed. It was a rare opportunity where people joined together to expand civil liberties to a group that was denied basic rights for too long.
On Thursday, March 16, 2023, Governor Whitmer signed the Elliott-Larson Civil Rights Act amendment into law. Many people who started this movement have passed, including Jeff Montgomery, Ruth Ellis, Jim Toy, Henry Messer and so many more. There have been an incalculable amount of people impacted by the lack of basic protections they were denied.
This passage of Senate Bill 4 will be hailed as a major victory for Michigan’s LGBTQ+ community for generations. However, there is still work to be done. Discrimination against LGBTQ+ people remains a problem in Michigan and across the country. And there are still gaps in protections, particularly in the areas of healthcare and criminal justice.
Addressing these issues will require continued advocacy and activism, in addition to the continued support of lawmakers at local, state, and federal levels. Equality Michigan will continue to lift up the people power of our community in order to enact progress and advance LGBTQ+ rights in our state.
It is with great enthusiasm that I celebrate Michigan’s vital step toward equality and justice for all. Today’s passing of the amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act will help ensure future generations of LGBTQ+ youth and their families, that they will have a fair opportunity to earn a living, feel safe in their communities, and have access to the necessities one needs to build a better life. This is something everyone in our state deserves– Buzz Thomas, Equality Michigan Chairman and former Senate Democratic Floor Leader