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Last week, commissioners in the city of St. Joseph went through the first reading of a non-discrimination ordinance targeted at expanding Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to expressly protect the rights of its LGBTQ citizens. Now tentatively scheduled for a second reading and vote for March 11, if passed, the ordinance will bring the number of explicitly LGBTQ-inclusive communities in the state to 46. As it stands now, it will punish all instances of discrimination with a $500 fine. Mary Jo Schnell is the executive director of the OutCenter which serves the Southwest Michigan LGBTQ community. She was in attendance at the meeting in her capacity as executive director and said she’s thrilled to hear that St. Joseph is taking this step.
“When I got the news on Sunday that the packet was available online to take a look and then show up on Monday, I was over the moon,” Schnell said, adding that she had been waiting for months for a decision on the issue. “Because I know that part of the [commission’s] conversation consisted of, ‘Now we have [Democratic] leadership in the state, why don’t we just wait for the state to do something?’ And so, when we heard that we had the opportunity to educate them about what Speaker Chatfield has already kind of said and what happened with then-governor-elect [Whitmer’s] transition team in December, that there was little or no confidence that the state legislature, which was predominantly GOP, was going to amend Elliott-Larsen.”
Schnell was involved in the original push to introduce this ordinance this past summer, and presented to the city commission the merits of expanding the existing civil rights act — that does not currently include protections on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. After reviewing the existing language in the first draft, Schnell said she was happy with it overall, but suggested two changes.
First, the ordinance uses the word “practice” in reference to the LGBTQ community.
“No. 1, it’s not a practice,” Schnell said. “We are concerned about area law enforcement use or interpretations of being LGBT that we’ve experienced beginning a year ago this last month, that being LGBT is a choice, a lifestyle and/or belief system. And so, when law enforcement or elected representatives or people in government look at sexual orientation as a choice or lifestyle, belief system, they’re not thinking consciously or unconsciously about how they’re looking at the letter of the law.”
St. Joseph Commissioner Laura Goos said that she values Schnell’s contributions to the discussion on the ordinance because even as an LGBTQ ally, she didn’t notice the potentially problematic implications of using the word that way.
“Quite honestly, after I had read it several times I didn’t even realize it was in there and then she pointed it out and it’s like it’s in a glaring, bold font,” Goos said. “So we absolutely wanted to remove the word ‘practice’ because we did not want there to be any thought of choice versus nature. We definitely want to be inclusive in the verbiage because there’s sexual orientation, there’s gender identity, there’s gender expression and nobody’s ‘practicing.'”
The second proposed change regards the proposed complaint review committee put in place by the ordinance. To simplify the complaint review process, it requires that they be submitted to the city manager. However, Schnell pointed out that a review process by a single individual could lead to unfair treatment if that person were biased. Goos agrees, too.
“We’re reviewing it because, again, we want to make sure whoever is responsible for reviewing a complaint, and preferably more than one person, that they have an objective understanding of the ordinance,” Goos said. “In other words, so that claims of discrimination would not be turned away because of potential bias.”
When asked why as an ally it is important to her that the local LGBTQ community have protections like these, Goos said that the answer is simple: because the Michigan legislature hasn’t done it yet.
“What I’m hoping is that the Michigan legislature takes up this work so that municipalities don’t have to create special ordinances to cover our citizens,” she said. “These are members of our community that need to be included in the Elliott-Larsen language and I would hope that our Michigan legislature would see to take care of that glaring gap. It would be remarkable of course if it was our entire state and we’re hoping we can be another spark to light the fire, but the fire does need to be lit.”
The next meeting scheduled to discuss the ordinance will be held on Monday, March 11. To find out more about that meeting, read the proposed ordinance and future meetings, visit sjcity.com/government/city-commission.