An anti-LGBT attack in Michigan

November 16, 2011

Michigan Republicans are targeting the LGBT community. Jeff Bale reports.

FAR-RIGHT REPUBLICANS in the Michigan legislature have used a number of proposals to put the LGBT community in their sights. The most recent was an outrageous clause inserted into an anti-bullying law that would actually allow bullying based on the aggressor student's religious or moral convictions.

This language was added to Matt's Safe School Law. The bill was named for Matt Epling, an East Lansing high school student who committed suicide in 2002 in the wake of ongoing anti-gay bullying he suffered at school. The language was rightly seen as an invitation to bully LGBT youth at school and to use religion to hide behind homophobia.

The bill passed the state senate with that language intact. However, it received so much national scorn--including a particularly scathing send-up by Stephen Colbert--that the final version of the bill dropped the homophobic clause.

Worse still, three additional anti-LGBT bills have passed or are working their way through Michigan's statehouse.

The first would prohibit state agencies, including public universities, from offering what's left of same-sex benefits to LGBT employees. In 2004, Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, an amendment to the state constitution that banned both same-sex marriage and domestic partnership benefits.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder

Universities and other public agencies that had offered domestic partnership benefits had to rework their policies in order to stay in compliance with the new anti-LGBT amendment. This severely curtailed the impact of such benefits.

But for Michigan's religious right, this still wasn't enough. This new bill goes the extra mile to ban any and all forms of domestic partnership benefits, whether the partners are same- or opposite-sex.

Its sponsors are using a fiscal argument to try to mask their homophobia. They argue that the state cannot afford to offer such benefits given the economic crisis.

And yet, if both members of the partnership work for a public institution, as is the case for virtually all employees at Michigan State University using such benefits, it is actually far more economical for the university to provide "family" benefits to domestic partners and their families than to each employee as individuals.

In other words, supporters of this bill are not only bigots, but they also can't add.

As of this writing, the bill has passed both houses, and awaits Gov. Rick Snyder's response.

The second bill under consideration is even more comprehensive. The basis for this proposal is a state anti-discrimination law passed in 1976. The original version of that law didn't include any form of sexual or gender identity as a protected class. The current bill not only bars any municipality in the state from adding protected classes of people to their anti-discrimination laws that were not in the original list from 1976, but forces municipalities to remove any protected classes of people added since.

This is literally turning back the clock on civil rights in Michigan, both for LGBT people and a number of other groups who have won anti-discrimination protections in the last 35 years.

The third bill is more limited in scope, but has the potential to open up the floodgates for more discrimination. Subtly titled the "Julea Ward Freedom of Conscience Act," it would allow students in professional psychology and counseling programs at public universities to invoke their "conscience" to discriminate against potential clients.

The bill was named for Julea Ward, a former graduate counseling student at Eastern Michigan University (EMU), who was expelled from the program because she refused to see an LGBT-identified client.

An LGBT student was scheduled to meet with Ward for counseling as part of Ward's practicum experience in the program. She refused to treat the student because of her "religious beliefs," instead referring the student to another counselor. This refusal violates both the professional code of conduct for counselors and EMU's program requirements.

Even though EMU proposed an alternative plan of action for Ward to learn how to work with students she found objectionable, Ward refused. She was subsequently--and rightly--thrown out of the program.

The current proposed bill would allow students in such professional programs to hide behind religion to engage in such discrimination. While the bill as written is limited only to psychology and counseling programs, it would only be the first step in forcing teacher education, medical and other professional programs to allow their students to discriminate because their god told them to.

UNFORTUNATELY, MOST of the responses to these bills have been along the narrow confines of lobbying and legalistic strategies.

For example, many liberal groups assumed that Snyder would not sign such far-right social legislation because he has stated repeatedly that his agenda is about "the economy"--which to date has meant cutting taxes for the rich, cutting welfare for the poor and elderly, attacking public-sector unions and installing "emergency financial managers" to subvert democratically elected city councils and school boards.

Not only does this response reflect the dead-end strategy of identity politics--only focusing on anti-LGBT issues to the exclusion of Snyder's ongoing war on the working class--but it is also factually wrong.

To keep the far-right wing nuts in Michigan's statehouse on his side, Snyder has already signed a bill banning so-called "partial birth" abortion into law. There is no reason to believe he won't get behind these anti-LGBT bills as well--unless we organize to pressure him not to.

However, Occupy Lansing--which would be an obvious means to build such pressure--has seen its numbers decline over the last three weeks, as the focus has remained almost exclusively on the internal issues of the encampment, rather than reaching out and pulling more people into the movement by challenging these anti-LGBT bigots, for example.

In Michigan, we need to follow the lead of other Occupy movements in making connections between economic struggles and struggles against oppression--and to get a dose of the confidence that has led to right-wingers like Eric Cantor, Michelle Bachmann and others being "mic-checked" at public events and shut down.

This is the sort of pressure we need to stop Snyder, the others in the statehouse and their anti-LGBT agenda.

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