LANSING – In a 5-2 decision on Thursday, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled in Rouch World, LLC v Department of Civil Rights that the state’s 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act bans discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The case, brought by the Michigan companies Rouch World and Uprooted Electrolysis, sought to challenge the state’s Civil Rights Commission for its interpretation of the law that classified sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. The lawsuit came in the wake of the companies’ refusal to serve transgender customers and those in same-sex relationships, prompting customer complaints that resulted in Civil Rights Commission investigations.
Given the arguments of the case, the Court was asked to determine whether the law’s inclusion of the word “sex” as a protected category applied to instances 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 on the basis of sexual orientation necessarily constitutes discrimination because of sex,” Clement wrote in the Court’s majority opinion. “Accordingly, the denial of ‘the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, 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 asserted his belief that the Court had overreached in its ruling.
“This Court’s function is to interpret and apply the laws that the Legislature writes,” Justice Zahra wrote. “That is not what the majority opinion has done.”
While the ruling was not at odds with his own views on the matter, Zahra wrote, the Court’s mandate was not observed by its majority in the case.
“Though I take no issue with today’s outcome, because I do not recognize the manner in which it has been achieved by the majority opinion to be faithful to the judicial role, I dissent,” Zahra wrote.
Similar arguments of overreach were made by the plaintiffs in the case who argued that the state legislature, not the Civil Rights Commission, held sole power to expand the law.
“The Legislature has declined to add ‘sexual orientation’ numerous times over the nearly 50 years since the [Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act] was enacted by the Legislature,” the plaintiff companies wrote in their case brief last November. “Further, the Legislature explicitly rejected adding ‘sexual orientation’ to the [Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act]. The unelected [Michigan Civil Rights Commission] is not the Legislature and is not politically accountable to the people.”
Previous, bipartisan efforts have been made by state lawmakers to codify sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the law. Such efforts, however, have failed to gain requisite traction in the state’s Republican-controlled legislature.
In writing the majority opinion, Justice Cavanagh rejected such narratives as pertinent to the duty of the Court.
“Should the Legislature disapprove of an application of a statute’s enacted language, the Legislature remains free to amend the statute,” Cavanagh wrote. “This Court, however, is bound by the language that the Legislature has enacted, not what the parties or amici believe the Legislature should have enacted or what any individual representative believed was 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 before the Court in conjunction with entities including the American Civil Liberties Union, released a statement following the ruling.
“Now, more than ever, it is critical that those of us elected to public office work to preserve and protect the rights of all residents,” Nessel said. “Today’s ruling confirms what we have long known – that the protections afforded by the [Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act] cover all Michiganders.”
The decision garnered similar praise from other top state officials, including Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Lieutenant Governor Garlin Gilchrist.
“As a mom, a governor, and proud ally of the community, I am so grateful for this ruling,” Whitmer said in a statement. “It will save lives, protect families, and help ensure that every Michigander is treated with dignity and respect by law.”
With the Court’s expansion of the law’s protections, members of Michigan’s LGBTQ community are now shielded from discrimination in all areas outlined in the law’s language.
Such includes protection in sectors including employment, housing, education and public accommodations.
“For too long, LGBTQ+ Michiganders had been left out of our state’s civil rights protections,” Whitmer said. “No longer. Because of this ruling, nobody can legally be fired from their job or evicted from their home because of who they love.”