Michigan does not have a good record when it comes to protecting the rights of same-sex couples and the wider queer community. In fact, Michigan has only become more hostile towards same sex couples over the past few months.
After an amendment to our state constitution passed as a referendum in 2004, our state became the first in the nation to ban not only gay marriage, but also civil unions and any other contract affording benefits to a same sex couple. On the state level, Michigan provides no protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation. In our state, it is perfectly legal not to hire someone simply because they are gay. The city council in my hometown of Holland, MI, recently voted down an ordinance that would offer equal protection against discrimination to the gay community.
Many of you may also have heard about House Bill 4770, which bans public institutions in Michigan from offering domestic partner benefits; this will likely have serious consequences for professors here at the university. From a legal standpoint, Michigan is objectively the most hostile environment for non-hetero people to live.
But nationally, the tides are quickly turning with respect to same, and Michigan could be forced to follow suit—if not by the courts, then perhaps by the business community.
The latter happened in Washington last week. Last Wednesday, the Washington State Senate passed a bill legalizing gay marriage. The bill received huge support from big businesses in Washington, with companies like Amazon, Microsoft, and Starbucks—all headquartered in Washington—urging passage of the bill. Why? These companies felt like they were losing valuable, often high-tech, non-hetero employees to companies located in states or countries that allowed same-sex marriage. These companies also expressed solidarity with current gay employees who they felt deserved equal treatment under the law.
Just yesterday in California, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that Proposition 8 was indeed unconstitutional. Proposition 8, passed by voters in 2008, overturned a California law that had allowed gay marriage.
The ruling itself is tricky, as Andrew Cohen explains at The Atlantic. Essentially, instead of arguing that marriage is a right that must be afforded to couples regardless of their sexual orientation, they focused on gay couples in California that would be stripped of their marriage licenses. Popular vote, they argued, is not able to strip away their right to maintain their marriages.
The case will almost certainly be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the ruling will likely depend on which way Justice Kennedy leans. What will be interesting is to see if the Supreme Court, and the lawyers arguing the case, will stick to the narrow opinion laid out in yesterday’s decision, are expand the case to be about the fundamental right of same-sex couples to marry.
If the latter takes hold, Michigan and other states with constitutional bans on same-sex marriage could be forced to change course. With the composition of our state legislature as it is, and the success of anti-gay popular referendums in the past, this may be what it takes to give the gay community the protections and rights it deserves.
By: Mike Guisinger
(Photo by Malingering under a Creative Commons license)