Supreme Court to hear civil rights case

MARQUETTE — The Michigan Supreme Court announced last week it will bypass the Court of Appeals to hear arguments in what could be considered a landmark civil rights case.

In an order issued on Friday and released on Saturday, the high court indicated it will hear the appeal of Rouch World LLC vs. Department of Civil Rights that would determine whether Michigan’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act fully protects LGBTQs.

Attorney General Dana Nessel, on behalf of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, had filed appeals with the Michigan Court of Appeals and the Michigan Supreme Court following the December ruling by the Michigan Court of Claims, which holds that the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act provides protection for “gender identity” discrimination but not for sexual orientation discrimination.

Nessel also filed a bypass application for leave to appeal before the Michigan Supreme Court — the application the court allowed in the 4-3 decision that came last week.

Because the case involves a “jurisprudentially significant issue of substantial legal and public import,” it warrants immediate review by the Michigan Supreme Court, Nessel’s office said in a statement in January.

Plaintiffs in the lawsuit include UpRooted Electrolysis LLC, based in Gwinn, and Rouch World LLC, an amusement park in downstate Sturgis, while the defendants are the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and its director.

According to the attorney general’s office, the businesses, based on religious grounds, denied services to customers who were either a same-sex couple — in the case of Rouch World — or an individual who was transitioning their gender identity, which took place at UpRooted.

In 2018, the Michigan Civil Rights Commission adopted an interpretive statement that “sex” as defined by ELCRA included protections for individuals on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, the attorney general’s office said. This determination by the commission allowed the MDCR to begin processing complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Complaints about the plaintiff businesses were filed in 2019 with the MDCR, which began its investigation. In early 2020, plaintiffs filed suit, asking the court to rule that MDCR has no jurisdiction to investigate complaints based on sexual orientation or gender identity and that the MCRC had no authority to issue the 2018 interpretive statement that sexual orientation and gender identity were covered under ELCRA.

Court of Claims Judge Christopher Murray, in his opinion issued on Dec. 7, sided with the MCRC’s interpretive statement that ELCRA provides protections for gender identity. However, on the issue of sexual orientation, he concluded that he was bound by the 1993 Court of Appeals ruling in Barbour v. Department of Social Services, which held that sexual orientation falls within the meaning of sex under ELCRA.

The 28-year-old Barbour decision, however, relied on federal precedent that is no longer valid in light of the June 2020 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Bostock v. Clayton County, the attorney general’s office said. In Bostock, the U.S. Supreme Court held that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation is a form of sex discrimination.

Justice Elizabeth Clement, in her dissent in Friday’s Michigan Supreme Court order, said “a case this important deserves full and thorough appellate consideration.”

The Supreme Court said briefs must be filed by Oct. 25.

It also invited the following groups, as well as other people or groups interested in the issue, to file briefs: the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Affirmations LGBTQ+ Community Center, Equality Michigan, Freedom for All Americans, the Human Rights Campaign, LGBT Detroit, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, OutCenter of Southwest Michigan, OutFront Kalamazoo, the Ruth Ellis Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, Stand With Trans and the Trans Sistas of Color Project.


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