In a 5-2 decision on Thursday, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in Rouch World, LLC v Department of Civil Rights that the Elliott-Larsen State Civil Rights Act of 1976 prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The case, brought by Michigan companies Rouch World and Uprooted Electrolysis, sought to challenge the state’s Civil Rights Commission for its interpretation of the law that classifies sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. The lawsuit came following the companies’ refusal to serve transgender customers and people in same-sex relationships, prompting customer complaints that resulted in investigations by the Civil Rights Commission.
Given the arguments in the case, the court was asked to consider whether the inclusion of the word “sex” in the law as a protected category applied to cases of discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.
Republican Justice Elizabeth Clement joined Democratic Justices Richard Bernstein, Megan Cavanagh and Elizabeth Welch – as well as Democratic Chief Justice Bridget McCormack – in the majority opinion.
“Discrimination based on sexual orientation necessarily constitutes discrimination based on sex,” Clement wrote in the court’s majority opinion. “As a result, denial of ‘full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, benefits or accommodations of a place of public accommodation or public service’ on the basis of sexual orientation constitutes discrimination.” because of… sex” and therefore constitutes a violation of the [Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act] under MCL 37.2302(a).
In his dissent alongside fellow Republican Justice David Viviano, Brian Zahra affirmed his belief that the court had overstepped the mark in its decision.
“The function of this court is to interpret and apply the laws that the legislature writes,” Zahra wrote. “That’s not what the majority opinion did.”
While the ruling does not contradict his own views on the matter, Zahra wrote, the court’s mandate was not met by his majority in the case.
“While I don’t dispute today’s result, because I don’t recognize how the majority opinion reached it to be faithful to the judicial role, I disagree,” Zahra wrote. .
Similar overbreadth arguments were made by the plaintiffs in the case who argued that the state legislature, not the Civil Rights Commission, held exclusive power to extend the law.
“The Legislative Assembly has refused to add ‘sexual orientation’ many times in the nearly 50 years since the [Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act] was enacted by the Legislature,” the plaintiff companies wrote in their brief last November. “Furthermore, the legislature explicitly rejected the addition of ‘sexual orientation’ to the [Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act]. The unelected [Michigan Civil Rights Commission] is not the legislative power and is not politically responsible to the people”.
Previously, bipartisan efforts were made by state lawmakers to codify sexual orientation and gender identity as classes protected by law. Such efforts, however, failed to gain the needed traction in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.
In writing the majority opinion, Cavanagh dismissed such accounts as relevant to the court’s duty.
“If the Legislature disapproves of an application of the enacted language of a statute, the Legislature remains free to amend the statute,” Cavanagh wrote. “This court, however, is bound by the language the legislature enacted, not what the parties or amici believe the legislature should have enacted or what any individual representative believed to have been enacted.”
Following its announcement Thursday afternoon, LGBTQ advocates in the state heralded the decision as a victory for equality in the state.
Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel, who had argued the case in court in collaboration with entities including the American Civil Liberties Union, released a statement following the ruling.
“Now, more than ever, it is essential that those of us be elected to public office to preserve and protect the rights of all residents,” Nessel said. “Today’s decision confirms what we have long known – that the protections offered by the [Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act] cover all the Michiganders.
The decision drew similar praise from other senior state officials, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist.
“As a mother, governor and proud ally of the community, I am so grateful for this decision,” Whitmer said in a statement. “This will save lives, protect families and help ensure that every Michigander is treated with dignity and respect under the law.”
With the court’s expansion of the law’s protections, members of Michigan’s LGBTQ community are now protected from discrimination in all areas described in the language of the law.
This includes protection in areas such as employment, housing, education and public housing.
“For too long, LGBTQ+ Michiganders have been excluded from our state’s civil rights protections,” Whitmer said. “Not anymore. Because of this ruling, no one can legally be fired from their job or kicked out of their home because of who they love.