BY AJ TRAGER
According to a recent report by the Human Rights Campaign, 115 anti-LGBT bills were introduced by state lawmakers in 2015. Many of these state Legislatures have provisions that allow bills introduced in the previous year to carry over into the current term if they were neither enacted nor defeated. Many of the bills introduced nationwide were Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) bills that would authorize individuals, businesses and taxpayer-funded agencies to cite any reason to refuse services to LGBT people. But the most heinous of bills introduced seek to restrict access to bathrooms by transgender people and eliminate the ability of local governments to protect LGBT residents and visitors.
“2016 will prove a critical year for the fight for LGBT equality in states across the country,” said HRC President Chad Griffin. “The progress our movement has made is threatened by an organized effort to pass discriminatory legislation that seeks to rollback our hard-won rights. We will have much work to do to defend our rights this year, but we will not waiver in our fight to expand the map for LGBT equality to every corner of this country.”
So what is coming to the ring in 2016 in the fight for LGBT equality?
Unlike Texas, Montana, Nevada and North Dakota, whose Legislatures do not have a 2016 session, the Michigan Legislature will meet throughout all of 2016 and will have a chance to discuss and amend proposed legislation that would further disadvantage the LGBT community and provide Michigan residents with a license to discriminate against the LGBT community.
Michigan is one of two dozen states considering anti-LGBT legislation.
RFRAs were originally intended to protect genuine religious freedom, such as the persecution of Native American spiritual practices; however, many states are using RFRA legislation to override LGBT anti-discrimination laws and deny women reproductive healthcare. This type of legislation would authorize religious exemptions so that a business owner or working professional could deny LGBT people access to a product or service. Many organizations and activists fought against the Michigan Senate Bill 4 that was introduced Jan. 20 last year but never moved out of committee.
Following the outcome last spring where Indiana Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a RFRA bill that many felt would legalize discrimination against the LGBT community, Gov. Snyder finally took a position in April and said that he would not sign similar legislation.
“Given all the events that are happening in Indiana, I thought it would be good to clarify my position,” Snyder said. “I would veto RFRA legislation in Michigan if it is a standalone piece of legislation.”
SB4 is just one of 14 RFRA measures that were introduced across the country in the past year and have the opportunity to be passed into law in coming months.
In states where pro-LGBT equality is the majority opinion and there are existing state-level protections against anti-LGBT discrimination, efforts are on the rise to pass legislation addressing bullying in schools, protecting the youth from “conversion therapy,” simplifying name and gender marker changes on identity documents and requiring LGBT cultural competency training for medical and social service providers.
While various organizations in Michigan are working on those efforts by educating and spreading awareness, perhaps the biggest fight on the minds of LGBT people in the state is the push to get statewide housing, employment and other legal protections for LGBT people that are currently not established in Michigan law. An effort that many in the state have been fighting to establish for decades.
A bipartisan effort was made in 2014 to get the state Legislature to pass an amendment to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, however issues over whether it was necessary to include gender identity and expression protections in the bill’s language left it sitting in committee.
Fair Michigan, the nonprofit organization now seeking 315,000 pro-LGBT signatures from registered voters, is working to get a ballot question placed on the voter’s ticket in November. The ballot question, if passed, would add LGBT protections into the state constitution. However, shortly after it was announced, the ballot proposal fell under heavy scrutiny. Seventeen LGBT organizations and affiliates signed a letter requesting Fair Michigan collaborate with the trans community and since then, the community and its leaders have been split on whether or not a ballot initiative is the right course in Michigan for the upcoming year.
Michigan, Nebraska, Ohio, Florida, Arizona, Indiana, Pennsylvania and Idaho are the only states with campaigns working in 2016 to amend existing state anti-discrimination laws to protect against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression. A similar measure is afoot in Massachusetts where state lawmakers are continuing to pass a bill that would add gender identity to an existing state law that already includes protections for sexual orientation.