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LGBTQ+ Rights Under Review at the Michigan Supreme Court

By Kilian Guensche, Communications Intern

Just before the July 4th holiday weekend, the Michigan Supreme Court voted 4-3 to accept a request from the Michigan Department of Civil Rights to bypass the appellate court and hear the case Rouch World LLC et al v. Michigan Department of Civil Rights et al.

The plaintiffs at the center of the case are two Michigan businesses that denied service to LGBTQ+ customers based on their sexual orientation or gender identities, according to complaints filed with the MDCR in 2019. MDCR launched an investigation into the businesses following the complaint filings, and the businesses answered with a lawsuit in the Michigan Court of Claims questioning the MDCR's jurisdiction to investigate their practices. Their case challenges a 2018 Michigan Civil Rights Commission interpretive statement that declared the word "sex", as used in the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, to include protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.

Essentially, Rouch World LLC and its fellow plaintiff, Uprooted Electrolysis, argue that the Michigan Department of Civil Rights could not investigate them because LGBTQ+ people are not protected against discrimination under current Michigan law.

In the initial case, Judge Christopher Murray ruled in favor of the businesses, at least in part.  He found that the word "sex" did not cover discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation. Somewhat inconsistently, he also found that gender identity was covered saying he believed he was bound by prior case law. On behalf of the MDCR, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel appealed the sexual orientation portion of the ruling to the Court of Appeals, but also asked the Supreme Court to bypass that step and consider the case itself. 

By granting the bypass, the case the Michigan Supreme Court has taken the matter into its own hands. This will assure a speedier and more definitive resolution of the question, hopefully adopting the Commission's opinion. The Court has given groups until October 25th to file amicus briefs on the case, and has invited a number of organizations to do so, including the Michigan ACLU, Equality Michigan, LGBT Detroit, the Southern Poverty Law Center, OutFront Kalamazoo, and others.

The stakes couldn't be higher for Michigan's LGBTQ+ communities in their ongoing fight for equal protection under the law. Legislative efforts to solidify the protections seem stalled, and the effort to put the issue to the state's voters has come up short in gathering the required number of signatures.