Calhoun County Urged to Include Explicit Protections For LGBTQ+ Employees

The co-president of Battle Creek Pride (BCP) is urging Calhoun County to include protections in their Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) policy for LGBTQ+ people. The policy currently does not include sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

The current EEO reads:

Calhoun County provides equal employment opportunities (EEO) to employees and applicants for employment with regard to race, color, religion, age, weight, height, sex, national origin, genetic information, disability or veteran status. Calhoun County complies with all applicable federal, state, and local laws governing nondiscrimination in employment in every location in which it has facilities.

"Right now, we omit LGBTQ protections in our language, and that's something that I've been looking to change here ever since I took office," Commissioner Jake W. Smith tells Pride Source. 

Co-president Deana Spencer says she is frustrated. "Part of my job as one of the co-presidents of Battle Creek Pride is to fight for people in our community. And I can't fight for people in my community when I have government always saying, 'We are not going to support you.'" 

The issue has never made it to the floor for a vote. "Year after year, I push for it, and year after year, it gets denied," she says."That's the part that makes me passionate."

"I could live with the fact that it may be outvoted, but the fact that they won't even bring it to the table, that's the part that makes me the angriest. At least let it be a discussion," Spencer says.

Calhoun County Corporation Counsel James L. Dyer sees things differently. 

"I do not agree that Calhoun County has a policy of excluding LBGTQ+ employees from the protection of either its personnel policies generally or its Equal Employment Opportunity Policy specifically," Dyer writes in an email.

"I would agree that our policy directly mentions only those classifications specifically identified in either the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act or Title VII of the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964," he continues. "But this is a conscious decision, since it is from these two statutes, and no other source, that we draw our legal authority to prevent unlawful discrimination of any kind."

The Supreme Court's 2020 decision in Bostock v. Clayton County applied Title VII to sexual orientation and gender identity. Title VII is the portion of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that protects employees against discrimination "because of sex." The provision applies to employers with more than 15 employees — Smith says Calhoun County's employee count is "hovering around 700 employees."

The United States Supreme Court "has made it clear" that discrimination is prohibited "against persons who are homosexual or transgender," writes Dyer using language taken directly from the Supreme Court opinion. "Even though others have criticized the logic and reasoning of this decision, it is undeniably the law of the land and Calhoun County is bound to, and does, follow it."

Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for ACLU of Michigan, confirms that the Bostock decision does protect Calhoun County employees. "The Bostock decision would apply for LGBT employees (i.e., they would be protected under Title VII)," he writes in an email. "Also as a government employer Calhoun County would also be subject to the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution should they have policies and practices that single out LGBT employees for discrimination."

That said, Calhoun could still include specific language covering LGBTQ+ employees if they chose to. "While Title VII will cover LGBT employees, per the U.S. Supreme Court, there are no laws preventing the county from explicitly making it clear that employees are not to be discriminated against based on their sexual orientation and gender identity," Kaplan continues.

"Other counties, like Oakland, Washtenaw, Kalamazoo, and Ingham have done this because it sends an affirmative message that LGBT employees will be treated with the same dignity and afforded with the same employee rights as their colleagues," Kaplan adds.

Dyer insists that Calhoun County is following the law and that protections aren't limited to the exact language of the EEO statute.

"In the end it has been my advice to Calhoun County that its EEO policy be clearly grounded in the enabling of civil rights statutes and that it backs that policy, where appropriate, by punishing unlawful discrimination, including discrimination against those in the LGBTQ+ community," he writes. "I find that much more satisfying than adopting a symbolic policy without a real commitment to its words."

Still, Smith and Spencer are determined to press on.

"These protections are obviously important on their face value," says Smith, "but as an employer it's a bad spot to be in, and I'm a little embarrassed that we can't get this done."

"I will work with Jake every single year until this is passed," says Spencer. "They think I'm going to go away, and I'm not."

Editor's Note: Pride Source reached out to each member of the County Commission, but the only reply was from Rochelle R. Nunley-Hatcher, one of two Democrats on the Commission, who said she was interested in speaking with Pride Source about this issue. Repeated attempts to connect with her were unsuccessful, however.