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Gov. Snyder urges Michigan revise gay discrimination law as businesses step up pressure

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MACKINAC ISLAND, Mich. - Gov. Rick Snyder on Thursday urged legislators to consider updating Michigan's civil rights law to prohibit discrimination because of sexual orientation or gender identity, applauding companies and the state's two largest regional chambers of commerce for joining a business-backed push to amend the law.

"I don't believe in discrimination," the Republican governor told reporters at the Mackinac Policy Conference, the Detroit Regional Chamber's annual meeting for more than 1,500 business, political and civil leaders. "It's a healthy thing for the Legislature to look to take it up as an issue sometime this year."

He stopped short of specifically backing an update of the 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, but his request that the GOP-led Legislature debate legislation late this summer or in the fall was seen as a positive signal by advocates. Snyder's comments — his strongest to date — came the same day that Chrysler, other companies, the Detroit Regional Chamber and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce joined the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, a group created this month to lobby to amend the law.

It is illegal to discriminate based on religion, race, colour, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status in employment, housing or public places under Michigan law. Efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list have stalled because of Republicans' concerns about infringing on employers' religious freedom.

"He wants to try to find that balance between protecting people from discrimination because of sexual orientation and yet protecting others' religious beliefs," said Ari Adler, spokesman for Republican House Speaker Jase Bolger of Marshall. "If we can find a way to do that, he's ready to move on this. But we have to make sure that we are protecting everyone from discrimination regardless of what the reason may be."

Twenty-one states have laws explicitly barring employment discrimination based on sexual orientation, according to the Human Rights Campaign, the largest U.S. lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender civil rights group.

Earlier this month, AT&T, Blue Cross Blue Shield and other companies launched the coalition to push for adding legal protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. Those who signed on Thursday on Mackinac Island also include Kellogg, Pfizer and other businesses.

"It's a business issue," said Rick Baker, president and CEO of the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. "We've had companies in our area express concern about their ability to attract and retain talent. We wanted to address their concerns ... and create a climate where everyone feels welcome in Michigan."

Brad Williams, vice-president of government relations for the Detroit Regional Chamber, said it is time to address the law that people view as discriminatory.

"We know that the Legislature needs to hear from the business community to push this issue up to the top," he said. "We plan on spending the summer talking to them a lot on the issue, and we're hopeful that come fall we'll be able to take it up and get the issue off the table."

The comments from Snyder, who is seeking re-election later this year, were welcomed by the state's leading gay rights group and Senate Democratic Leader Gretchen Whitmer of East Lansing.

"I do not know if we have the business community, the election year or an honest ideological progression to thank, but I am glad to see that the governor is finally on board with offering basic civil rights protections to all Michigan citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity," Whitmer said.

The gay rights group Equality Michigan is pushing to amend the discrimination law in 2014 as a precursor to a planned 2016 ballot drive to overturn Michigan's constitutional ban against same-sex marriage.

"We're thrilled that the governor put a timeline on it," Executive Director Emily Dievendorf said. "To us, that is making the amendment of Elliott-Larsen a priority."

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Follow David Eggert on Twitter at https://twitter.com/DavidEggert00

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