Monday, August 01, 2022

Michigan Supreme Court: State's Public Accommodation Law Bars Sexual Orientation Discrimination

In Rouch World, LLC v. Department of Civil Rights, (MI Sup. Ct., July 28, 2022), the Michigan Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, held that the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act's ban on sex discrimination on the basis of sex includes discrimination based on sexual orientation. The case was brought in the state Court of Claims by two businesses which, on religious grounds, refused to serve LGBT clients. One of the plaintiffs had refused to host a same-sex wedding at its event center. The other had refused to provide electrolysis hair-removal services to a transgender woman. The Court of Claims, bound by higher state court precedent, held that the ELCRA did not cover sexual orientation discrimination. However, lacking state court precedent on its application to transgender discrimination, the Court of Claims held that the ECLRA does ban discrimination on the basis of gender identity.  Only the holding regarding sexual orientation was appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Justice Clement's majority Supreme Court opinion said in part:

[W]e conclude that discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation necessarily involves discrimination because of sex in violation of the ELCRA. In so doing, we find persuasive Bostock’s application of Title VII’s but-for standard. While we are encouraged but not bound to consider persuasive Title VII federal case law, ... we find that Bostock offers a straightforward analysis of the plain meaning of analogous statutory language and we agree with its reasoning....

Plaintiff Rouch World, along with the dissent, also criticizes this conclusion as inconsistent with the intent of the 1976 Legislature that enacted the ELCRA. It argues that the ELCRA’s legislative history demonstrates that the Legislature intentionally chose to exclude protections from discrimination based on sexual orientation, both at the time of its enactment by declining to include the specific language and repeatedly thereafter by rejecting proposed amendments that would have added the specific language. However, the legislative history of a statute is relevant to the statute’s meaning only where the statute is ambiguous.... When the statute’s language is clear, as it is here, we rely on that plain language as the best evidence of its meaning.

Judge Zahra, dissenting, said in part:

I take no issue with the merits of the policy adopted today by a majority of this Court. I also harbor no doubt that my colleagues in the majority are acting in good faith, with pure hearts and the best of intentions.

Yet ... this Court’s duty is to say what the law is, not what it thinks the law ought to be.

The majority opinion declares that “because of . . . sex” means something that nobody in 1976 thought it meant.... [T]he majority opinion also declares that phrase to encompass something that the enacting Legislature specifically and explicitly considered including but ultimately chose not to embrace.... If we are to be faithful to our constitutional mandate to say what the law is, we simply cannot pretend that the ELCRA says something that it does not say.

Justice Viviano filed a dissenting opinion which says in part:

The relevant statutory provision, MCL 37.2302(a), prohibits certain discriminatory actions taken “because of . . . sex,” among other things. Properly interpreted, this requires that the defendant maintain some prejudice, bias, animus, or belief about “sex” or the other characteristics protected by the statute....

[D]iscrimination on the basis of one’s sexual orientation is not discrimination because of some prejudice, bias, animus, or belief about the male sex or the female sex.

Bridge Michigan reports on the decision.