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The Michigan Civil Rights Commission defends humanity

May 22, 2018

Let’s say there had been a Michigan Civil Rights Commission in 1961, and it announced that it was going to start investigating claims of discrimination against black people.

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Undoubtedly that would have met considerable opposition, since there was, as yet, no legal basis to try to prevent someone from hiring you, or renting to you, because you were black. I don’t know how successful their efforts would have been.

Probably not very, at least at first. They would have risked verbal attacks, or worse. But I know that we would look back on them today as heroes. And their efforts might have gotten us thinking about open housing and employment anti-discrimination acts sooner than we did.

Well, something like that happened yesterday. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission voted to start taking claims of discrimination based on sexual orientation and/or gender identity. We now live in a crazy parallel universe where you can marry someone of the same sex anywhere in Michigan, but you can still be fired for being gay or transgender.

This makes no sense. But lots of things don’t. When it came to racial discrimination in this country, progress happened in reverse order. The right to not be fired for being black was established before marriage equality. Three years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, it was still illegal for black and white people to marry in 16 states.

Not till the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Loving v. Virginia would President Obama’s parents’ marriage, for example, have been recognized as valid everywhere.

Today, it is hard to believe that sort of discrimination existed. But the Michigan Legislature has refused to extend the Elliot-Larsen Civil Rights Act to gay and transgender people. Ben Robinson, an assistant to Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette, months ago warned the Civil Rights Commission not to do this.

According to the Detroit Free Press, he even told them they could lose their governmental immunity and be subject to a lawsuit if it tried to protect gay people from discrimination. But the civil rights commissioners weren’t cowed by that.

Though one abstained and two didn’t attend the meeting, the other five commissioners voted unanimously to investigate and fight against claims of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity. Discrimination, that is, in employment, housing, real estate and public accommodations and public service.

The issue was brought to a vote by Alma Wheeler Smith, a former state senator who knows something about the effects of discrimination. Her twin sister’s dress caught on fire when she was two years old and the family lived in South Carolina. The ambulance refused to take her to the hospital because she was black, and little Lucille died.

What the Civil Rights Commission will likely do is end up bringing discrimination cases to the courts. That’s what happens in this country anytime someone fights for their rights. They will win some and lose some, and the cases will go to higher courts.

Earlier this year, the 6th Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that a Michigan funeral home illegally discriminated against a transgender funeral director by firing her for wanting to be who she was. There will be many more battles.

But I think history says that time is on the Michigan Civil Rights’ Commission’s side.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.