For a more competitive Michigan, lawmakers must expand civil rights law

Everything we do at the Michigan Environmental Council is guided by our vision of a brighter future for our state. We work every day toward a healthy state powered by clean, renewable fuels; known for an irresistible mix of bustling urban areas and unspoiled wild places; connected by convenient buses, trains and trails; and defined by clean, abundant fresh water.

While a cleaner, healthier environment is a key feature of the future Michigan we envision, that future also will provide greater economic opportunities for residents across the state by creating the kinds of communities young professionals flock to.

So, though environmental protection is MEC's focus, we occasionally feel compelled to speak up when something outside our usual purview threatens the thriving Michigan we're trying to build. That's why we're urging lawmakers to correct Michigan's failure to protect the basic rights of all residents.

Surprisingly, current law allows Michigan residents to be fired, passed over in hiring or denied housing based on their gender identity or sexual orientation.

That our state still permits such discrimination is, frankly, embarrassing. It's also out of step with what Michiganders value. Polling shows three-quarters of Michigan residents and 60 percent of small business owners support amending the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to outlaw those practices.

Legislators should heed calls from the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition to amend Elliott-Larsen-which prohibits workplace discrimination against anyone based on their religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status-to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

The coalition was launched in the spring by several major corporations, including Whirlpool, Blue Cross Blue Shield, Herman Miller, Steelcase and Google. It has since added a number of new members, including chambers of commerce, health care facilities and public education groups.

Amending the law is important because the future of Michigan's economy depends largely on keeping educated, hardworking people here and attracting them from other states, said Jim Murray, president of AT&T Michigan and co-chair of the coalition.

"The college graduates who have the degrees to help our economic recovery will have choices , and some of them look at the quality of life," Murray said in an interview with MEC. "We don't have protections for everybody, and we need to do that."

MEC President Chris Kolb agreed that expanding the state's civil rights law is critical for Michigan's long-term prosperity.

"Michigan should be rolling out the welcome mat for young professionals, entrepreneurs and innovators," he said. "We're making progress with policies that are leading to more walkable neighborhoods, high-quality trails, dependable public transit and the other amenities today's workers look for. But those efforts are undermined by a gap in state policy which sends a pretty clear message that Michigan is stuck in the past."

Kolb also noted that equal rights and environmental protection go hand-in-hand.

"Suburban sprawl has huge environmental implications and remains a significant issue here in Michigan," Kolb said. "To combat sprawl, we need to build vibrant communities and strong urban cores. We can't do that without attracting and retaining more talented young people, who increasingly want to live in urban areas and who value openness, diversity and fair treatment for everyone."

Sen. Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor and Rep. Sam Singh of East Lansing, both Democrats, introduced bills this week to amend Elliott-Larsen. Gov. Rick Snyder has said the Legislature should discuss the issue, but Republican legislative leaders remain hesitant, citing concerns about religious freedom. Rep. Frank Foster, a Petoskey Republican, made headlines recently when he lost his primary bid for reelection in part because he supports expanding civil rights.

MEC applauds Warren, Singh, Foster and the many other lawmakers who understand that protecting the fundamental rights of all Michiganders is crucial for our state's economic competitiveness. With strong support from the business community and backing from a wide majority of Michiganders, it's time for the full Legislature to follow their lead and do the right thing.


Photo courtesy Ken Lund via Flickr.

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