MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. — Chrysler and Michigan’s two largest regional chambers of commerce today joined a business-backed push for an update of state law to prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, an issue Gov. Rick Snyder said lawmakers should consider later this year.
“It’s a business issue,” said Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’ve had companies in our area express concern about their ability to attract and retain talent. We wanted to address their concerns ... and create a climate where everyone feels welcome in Michigan.”
The announcement at the Detroit Regional Chamber’s Mackinac Policy Conference was no accident. The annual gathering attracts more than 1,500 of the state’s top business, political and civic leaders, and Snyder — in his strongest comments to date — said he opposes discrimination and urged legislators to consider the issue later this year.
He stopped short of specifically backing an update of the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, but the Republican governor’s request that the GOP-led Legislature debate the matter was seen as a positive sign by advocates.
Under Michigan law, it is illegal to discriminate based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status. Efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list have stalled because of Republicans’ concerns about infringing on employers’ religious freedom.
“He wants to try to find that balance between protecting people from discrimination because of sexual orientation and yet protecting others’ religious beliefs,” said Ari Adler, spokesman for Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger of Marshall. “If we can find a way to do that, he’s ready to move on this. But we have to make sure that we are protecting everyone from discrimination regardless of what the reason may be.”
Earlier this month, AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield and other companies launched the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition to lobby to amend the law. Those who signed on today include the Detroit Regional Chamber, Kellogg, Pfizer and others.
“Anytime you have a law on the books that anybody is going to view as discriminatory, it’s time to address it,” said Brad Williams, vice president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber. “We know that the Legislature needs to hear from the business community to push this issue up to the top. We plan on spending the summer talking to them a lot on the issue, and we’re hopeful that come fall we’ll be able to take it up and get the issue off the table.”