A Michigan agency will for the first time process complaints of discrimination against LGBT people after a board said Monday that the state's civil rights law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The state Civil Rights Commission voted 5-0 to issue the interpretive statement, with one member abstaining and two not attending the meeting in Ypsilanti. A conservative legal group said it anticipates filing a lawsuit, contending that only the Legislature can expand such protections — not an unelected board.
The interpretive statement says that discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of sex discrimination outlawed under the 1976 civil rights law.
Michigan Department of Civil Rights Director Augustin V. Arbulu said complaints will be processed starting Tuesday. The commission acted at the request of Equality Michigan, an LGBT rights group that asked for the statement last July.
"There are over 300,000 individuals with different sexual or gender affiliations who have felt that ... they had no place to go if they were discriminated (against)," Arbulu told The Associated Press in a phone interview. "Now they have a place to go. That's a game-changer."
He said the civil rights law "has always been a trailblazer" and the statement means the state will "continue to be on the front lines when it comes to civil rights."
Angela Dallara, a spokeswoman for the LGBT advocacy organization Freedom for All Americans, said the statement represents a "big step for Michigan," but added "it's important for legislators to codify protections into state law." Her group says there are 18 states with what it considers "explicit, comprehensive protections for LGBT people from discrimination." A 19th, New York, has equivalent language in an executive order.
Still, the issue in Michigan is not settled.
David Kallman, senior legal counsel for the Lansing-area Great Lakes Justice Center, said the organization likely will sue. Last year, it submitted arguments to the commission on the behalf of 10 Republican lawmakers who said the Legislature has rejected adding more classifications to the civil rights law 11 times since 1999.
"The Civil Rights Commission is not the state Legislature. They do not have the authority to change state law, which is what they're doing here. This isn't just interpreting some word. This is adding new categories. ... The last time I checked, we still have something called the separation of powers," Kallman said.
Democrats and Republicans in the GOP-controlled Legislature have been at odds over expanding civil rights protections for LGBT citizens. Outside allies also have offered sharply different views on the commission's responsibility and authority in the wake of federal rulings declaring that LGBT-based discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations is forbidden.
Before voting Monday, the commission had previously tabled the request for the interpretive statement. Assistant attorney general Ron Robinson, who heads the department's civil rights division, again told commissioners they did not have the authority to do so.
"As we have previously said, laws can only be created and changed by the Legislature," said Andrea Bitely, spokeswoman for Attorney General Bill Schuette, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor.