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Michigan Supreme Court rules existing law bans anti-LGBTQ discrimination

Governor, other state officials praised 5-2 decision

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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,” 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, 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 Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Lt. Gov. 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.”

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Indiana

Drag queen announces run for mayor of Ind. city

Branden Blaettne seeking Fort Wayne’s top office

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Branden Blaettner being interviewed by a local television station during last year’s Pride month. (WANE screenshot)

In a Facebook post Tuesday, a local drag personality announced he was running for the office of mayor once held by the late Fort Wayne Mayor Tom Henry, who died last month just a few months into his fifth term.

Henry was recently diagnosed with late-stage stomach cancer and experienced an emergency that landed him in hospice care. He died shortly after.

WPTA, a local television station, reported that Fort Wayne resident Branden Blaettne, whose drag name is Della Licious, confirmed he filed paperwork to be one of the candidates seeking to finish out the fifth term of the late mayor.

Blaettner, who is a community organizer, told WPTA he doesn’t want to “get Fort Wayne back on track,” but rather keep the momentum started by Henry going while giving a platform to the disenfranchised groups in the community. Blaettner said he doesn’t think his local fame as a drag queen will hold him back.

“It’s easy to have a platform when you wear platform heels,” Blaettner told WPTA. “The status quo has left a lot of people out in the cold — both figuratively and literally,” Blaettner added.

The Indiana Capital Chronicle reported that state Rep. Phil GiaQuinta, who has led the Indiana House Democratic caucus since 2018, has added his name to a growing list of Fort Wayne politicos who want to be the city’s next mayor. A caucus of precinct committee persons will choose the new mayor.

According to the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, the deadline for residents to file candidacy was 10:30 a.m. on Wednesday. A town hall with the candidates is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Thursday at Franklin School Park. The caucus is set for 10:30 a.m. on April 20 at the Lincoln Financial Event Center at Parkview Field.

At least six candidates so far have announced they will run in the caucus. They include Branden Blaettne, GiaQuinta, City Councilwoman Michelle Chambers, City Councilwoman Sharon Tucker, former city- and county-council candidate Palermo Galindo, and 2023 Democratic primary mayoral candidate Jorge Fernandez.

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Arizona

Ariz. governor vetoes anti-transgender, Ten Commandments bill

Katie Hobbs has pledged to reject anti-LGBTQ bills that reach her desk

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Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs speaks with reporters at an April 8, 2024 press conference. (Photo courtesy of Hobbs’s Facebook page)

BY CAITLIN SIEVERS | A slew of Republican bills, including those that would have allowed discrimination against transgender people and would have given public school teachers a green light to post the Ten Commandments in their classrooms, were vetoed by Gov. Katie Hobbs on Tuesday. 

Hobbs, who has made it clear that she’ll use her veto power on any bills that don’t have bipartisan support — and especially ones that discriminate against the LGBTQ community — vetoed 13 bills, bringing her count for this year to 42.

Republicans responded with obvious outrage to Hobbs’s veto of their “Arizona Women’s Bill of Rights,” which would have eliminated any mention of gender in state law, replacing it with a strict and inflexible definition of biological sex. The bill would have called for the separation of sports teams, locker rooms, bathrooms, and even domestic violence shelters and sexual assault crisis centers by biological sex, not gender identity, green-lighting discrimination against trans Arizonans.

“As I have said time and again, I will not sign legislation that attacks Arizonans,” Hobbs wrote in a brief letter explaining why she vetoed Senate Bill 1628

The Arizona Senate Republicans’ response to the veto was filled with discriminatory language about trans people and accused them of merely pretending to be a gender different than they were assigned at birth. 

“With the radical Left attempting to force upon society the notion that science doesn’t matter, and biological males can be considered females if they ‘feel’ like they are, Katie Hobbs and Democrats at the Arizona State Legislature are showing their irresponsible disregard for the safety and well-being of women and girls in our state by killing the Arizona Women’s Bill of Rights,” Senate Republicans wrote in a statement. 

The Senate Republicans went on to accuse the Democrats who voted against the bill of endangering women. 

“Instead of helping these confused boys and men, Democrats are only fueling the dysfunction by pretending biological sex doesn’t matter,” Senate President Warren Petersen said in the statement. “Our daughters, granddaughters, nieces, and neighbors are growing up in a dangerous time where they are living with an increased risk of being victimized in public bathrooms, showers, and locker rooms because Democrats are now welcoming biological males into what used to be traditionally safe, single-sex spaces.”

But trans advocates say, and at least one study has found, that there’s no evidence allowing trans people to use the bathroom that aligns with their identity makes those spaces less safe for everyone else who uses them. 

In the statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Sine Kerr (R-Buckeye), claimed that the bill would have stopped trans girls from competing in girls sports, something she said gives them an unfair advantage. But Republicans already passed a law to do just that in 2022, when Republican Gov. Doug Ducey was still in office, though that law is not currently being enforced amidst a court challenge filed by two trans athletes. 

Republicans also clapped back at Hobbs’ veto of Senate Bill 1151, which would have allowed teachers or administrators to teach or post the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, a measure that some Republicans even questioned as possibly unconstitutional. 

In a statement, the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Anthony Kern (R-Glendale), accused Hobbs of “abandoning God” with her veto. 

“As society increasingly strays away from God and the moral principles our nation was founded upon, Katie Hobbs is contributing to the cultural degradation within Arizona by vetoing legislation today that would have allowed public schools to include the Ten Commandments in classrooms,” Kern said in the statement. 

In her veto letter, Hobbs said she questioned the constitutionality of the bill, and also called it unnecessary. During discussion of the bill in March, several critics pointed out that posting the Ten Commandments in public school classrooms, tenets of Judeo-Christian religions, might make children whose families practice other religions feel uncomfortable. 

“Sadly, Katie Hobbs’ veto is a prime example of Democrats’ efforts to push state-sponsored atheism while robbing Arizona’s children of the opportunity to flourish with a healthy moral compass,” Kern said. 

Another Republican proposal on Hobbs’s veto list was Senate Bill 1097, which would have made school board candidates declare a party affiliation. School board races in Arizona are currently nonpartisan. 

“This bill will further the politicization and polarization of Arizona’s school district governing boards whose focus should remain on making the best decisions for students,” Hobbs wrote in her veto letter. “Partisan politics do not belong in Arizona’s schools.”

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Caitlin Sievers

Caitlin joined the Arizona Mirror in 2022 with almost 10 years of experience as a reporter and editor, holding local government leaders accountable from newsrooms across the West and Midwest. She’s won statewide awards in Nebraska, Indiana and Wisconsin for reporting, photography and commentary.

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The preceding piece was previously published by the Arizona Mirror and is republished with permission.

Amplifying the voices of Arizonans whose stories are unheard; shining a light on the relationships between people, power and policy; and holding public officials to account.

Arizona Mirror is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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National

Senate committee: Republican attorneys general abused power demanding trans medical records

AGs used ‘abusive legal demands’

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U.S. Senate Finance Committee hearing room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee)

In a 10-page report released on Tuesday by staff for the Democratic majority of the U.S. Senate Finance Committee, the Republican attorneys general of Tennessee, Missouri, Indiana, and Texas are accused of using “abusive legal demands” to collect the medical records of transgender patients in furtherance of the attorneys general’ “ideological and political goals.”

According to the document, which is titled “How State Attorneys General Target
Transgender Youth and Adults by Weaponizing the Medicaid Program and their Health Oversight Authority,” the attorneys general used specious or misleading legal pretexts to justify their issuance of civil investigative demands to healthcare providers.

For example, the office of Tennessee Attorney General Jonathan Skrmetti framed the request as part of a probe into the potential misuse of Medicaid funds, while the offices of Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita and Missouri Attorney General Andrew Bailey cited suspected violations of consumer protection laws. The office of Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, which demanded records from “at least two hospitals located in Texas as well as at least two medical providers” in Washington and Georgia, did not disclose why the requests were issued.

The report found that information requested by the attorneys general’s offices included “invasive items such as unredacted physical and mental health records, photographs of children’s bodies, correspondence to hospitals’ general email addresses for LGBTQIA+ patients, and lists of people referred for transgender health care.”

In response, and in what the committee called “a grave violation of patient privacy and trust,” some providers turned over “near-complete, patient-identifiable” information while others used legal processes available to them such as privacy protections in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act to share fewer details with the attorneys general’s offices.

The report noted that Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville had “failed to object in any material manner to the Tennessee attorney general’s sweeping request and then caused undue terror to young patients and their families by supplying the Tennessee attorney general with some of the records requested and then, again, by erroneously notifying some patients of medical record disclosures that had not occurred.”

News concerning Vanderbilt’s receipt of and compliance with the demands from Skrmetti’s office was made public in June, sparking widespread concern and panic among many of the center’s trans patients and their families. Some, according to the report, experienced suicidal ideation and emotional distress including depression and anxiety.

A plaintiffs’ lawsuit was filed in July over VUMC’s failure to redact personally identifying information from the medical records. The following month, the center disclosed plans to comply with an investigation by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Civil Rights.

In a statement to NBC News, Michael Regier, the medical center’s general counsel and secretary, said the hospital disputes the findings published in the committee’s report and had submitted “a detailed letter outlining our concerns about its proposed findings before it was released.” 

“We made every effort to both protect our patients and follow the law,” Regier said, adding that “At no point did we violate privacy laws, and we strongly disagree with any suggestion that we did.”

However, the committee’s report notes that by contrast, providers in other states like the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis refused to turn over patient records, citing privacy concerns and HIPPA regulations. And after staff for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the committee chair, had requested and reviewed copies of correspondence between VUMC and the Tennessee attorney general’s office, they concluded that the documentation “sheds light, for the first time, on the full extent of VUMC’s acute and repeated failures to protect its patients.”

For example, the report explains that after Skrmetti’s office issued the initial request to VUMC, it followed up with two additional civil investigative demands for “confidential information across 18 categories without any bounds on the number of patients or people implicated” ranging from “employment contracts for physicians to volunteer agreements for the
VUMC Trans Buddy Program to communications to and from a general email address.”

In response, the hospital shared “65,000 pages of documents, including the medical records of 82 transgender patients.” The information that was provided pursuant to receipt of Skrmetti’s office’s third civil investigative demand is unknown.

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