GRAND RAPIDS, MI — It started on social media before spilling over onto the screen.
Instagram posts began circulating in early July stating that The Broadway Avenue, a new venue in Grand Rapids, does not host LGBTQ weddings. Venue owners Nick and Hannah Natale responded in kind saying they want their business to stay “true to our Christian faith and that includes marriage” and told WOOD-TV they believe marriage was “between a man and a woman”.
A fury ensued.
Tens of thousands of comments flooded The Broadway Avenue’s social media pages. Protesters gathered outside the site waving rainbow flags. And the city has launched an investigation into its human rights ordinance.
Related: Grand Rapids is investigating allegations that the wedding venue will not host ceremonies for LGBTQ couples
Amid the backlash, one question lingered: Is it legal?
“As far as the legality of our department and jurisdiction is concerned, if someone comes to us with allegations of unlawful discrimination based on their sex, including gender identity and sexual orientation, we take those complaints. and at the moment we are carrying out investigations,” Marcelina said. Trevino, director of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights’ Enforcement Division.
Although Michigan’s Department of Civil Rights investigates complaints of discrimination involving sexual orientation and gender identity, legal protections for LGBTQ people in Michigan are fragile.
The crux of this case is a word in the law: sex.
The Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 protects people from discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, family status and marital status. But the Michigan Civil Rights Commission passed an interpretative statement five years ago to prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation within the category of sex.
“At this time, with the interpretative statement that the commission published in (May) 2018, we conclude that it is unlawful discrimination on grounds of sex if there are problems of discrimination with regard to the gender identity and/or sexual orientation,” Trevino said.
Related: Sexual orientation is protected by civil rights law, says AG Nessel in Michigan Supreme Court
Although the interpretative statement currently extends authority to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, this issue goes to the heart of a case pending before the Michigan Supreme Court.
In 2020, two companies being investigated for discrimination sued the Michigan Department of Civil Rights arguing that the state’s civil rights laws do not cover sexual orientation.
Rouch World, a 300-acre park in Sturgis, refused to hold a same-sex wedding ceremony due to religious beliefs. And the owners of hair removal business Uprooted Electrolysis in the Upper Peninsula cited Christian beliefs as the reason they refused to serve a transgender woman.
The plaintiffs argued they had a constitutional right to refuse service based on religious beliefs — a flashpoint around LGBTQ rights in the United States.
Attorney David Kallman, who is representing the two companies in the lawsuit, previously told MLive that the Civil Rights Department does not have the power to set the law.
“Our state law provides that these interpretative statements are not binding on the courts or citizens,” he said in an interview last year. “In a way, it’s not even really the issue of sexual orientation – it’s been turned into that – but the problem is that the department has no right to enforce these interpretive statements.”
Kallman was not immediately available for comment.
Related: Does Michigan’s civil rights law apply to LGTBQ people? The Michigan Supreme Court will decide.
Michigan’s Court of Claims later ruled that sexual orientation was not protected under current civil rights law, prompting Attorney General Dana Nessel to file a lawsuit to take the case to court. Michigan Supreme Court.
Addressing the court in March, Nessel argued that sexual orientation is “inextricably linked” to gender category under the law.
Michigan’s Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling soon that could shape the state’s civil rights law after other efforts, such as a recent ballot initiative, failed.
The outcome could enshrine protections for LGBTQ people, or it could override the interpretive declaration that currently protects sexual orientation and gender identity from discrimination.
In the meantime, Trevino says the Michigan Department of Civil Rights will continue to investigate complaints under the interpretive statement.
“Until there is something to the contrary from the courts, this is what gives us our jurisdiction and our authority,” she said.
Outside of state law, municipal ordinances can go further.
The City of Grand Rapids has a Human Rights Ordinance that does not allow discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. The city launched an investigation after receiving 10 complaints against The Broadway Avenue, and a petition urging the city to enforce the ordinance has more than 12,000 signatures.
A violation could prompt Grand Rapids to seek a court order to prevent discrimination.
That investigation is still ongoing, with the order allowing for a 90-day review from the filing of the complaint.
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