Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette said Friday that state law does not ban discrimination against LGBT people, declaring a commission's interpretation to be invalid while stating that only the Legislature or voters can expand the law to provide such protections.
Schuette, who is running for governor as a Republican, issued his opinion at the request of GOP legislative leaders. In May, the Civil Rights Commission began processing complaints after releasing an interpretive statement that said discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of "sex" discrimination outlawed under the state's 1976 civil rights law.
Schuette wrote that while the significance of the issue "is not lost on this office, the power to change Michigan law only lies with the Legislature ... or the people themselves through initiative."
Attorney general opinions, while not the same as legal rulings, are considered binding on state agencies unless reversed by a court, said Schuette spokeswoman Andrea Bitely.
The ruling drew criticism from Democrats.
The liberal group Progress Michigan said Schuette "is siding with discrimination and bigotry," while Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed called Schuette "Michigan's discriminator-in-chief" in a tweet.
The state Department of Civil Rights said it was reviewing the opinion and expected the commission to discuss the ruling at its next meeting on Monday.
"We will continue taking and processing complaints, but we will not begin investigating those complaints until after the commission provides us with direction," agency director Agustin Arbulu said in a statement. His department had received eight LGBT-based complaints as of earlier this week, some of which are under investigation.
Democrats and Republicans in the Republicans-controlled Legislature have long been at odds over expanding civil rights protections for LGBT citizens. Outside allies also have offered sharply different views on the commission's responsibility and authority in the wake of conflicting federal rulings on whether LGBT-based discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations is forbidden or permissible.
This week, a federal appeals court reaffirmed its decision that workers are not protected against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation.
The commission, citing another federal appellate decision, had said continuing to interpret the word "sex" more restrictively "would itself be discriminatory."
But in his opinion, Schuette said while the state's anti-discrimination law does not define the term, it was understood in 1976 to refer to the biological differences between males and females — "not the concepts of sexual orientation or gender identity."