Editor’s note: This story has been updated with coverage of the Feb. 16 Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners meeting.
KALAMAZOO — LGBTQ advocates say Southwest Michigan First should support expanding Michigan’s civil rights law following backlash to the appointment of its new CEO, former House Speaker Lee Chatfield.
On Monday, the Kalamazoo City Commission unanimously withdrew $10,000 in annual funding to the economic development organization. The backlash is centered on Chatfield’s record as a legislator in blocking the expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include workplace and other protections for the LGBTQ community.
Chatfield is the former Republican House Speaker and three-term legislator who started as Southwest Michigan First’s CEO this week.
In what he described as one of his first actions as CEO, Southwest Michigan First issued a statement today that it has updated its “official handbook” to “more clearly articulate that we prohibit discrimination based on gender identity or sexual orientation in our hiring process.”
“Though it has always been a practice to treat one another with an equal amount of dignity and respect free of discrimination throughout our company’s existence, we are taking this important step today to make sure it is official,” according to the statement. “We have listened. We have heard. And now we are taking action.”
The commission’s move to withdraw the funding on Monday was led by Commissioner Erin Knott, who is also executive director of the statewide LGBTQ advocacy group Equality Michigan.
As well, Kalamazoo County contributes $75,000 annually to Southwest Michigan First. The Kalamazoo County Board of Commissioners discussed whether to take similar action as the city at its meeting Tuesday night.
Board Chair Tracy Hall said a resolution to suspend the county’s annual $75,000 contribution — which covers economic development services for the county — will be on the county commission’s March 2 meeting agenda.
However, some county commissioners raised opposition to Hall’s motion.
Commissioner Dale Shugars said he is more concerned with the county’s relationship with companies like Pfizer Inc., Kellogg Co. and Stryker Corp. than he is with backlash against Chatfield. He urged the county to “not make an emotional decision,” as he claimed the city did.
“When we start going down this road, it’s a dangerous road,” Shugars said. “Step back and think about all the things Southwest Michigan First has done for this community.”
In a statement Tuesday, Knott said while she appreciated the organization’s “swift action and willingness to engage in the work, updating their official handbook to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity should have been a task completed long ago.”
Knott called on Southwest Michigan First to back an Elliott-Larsen expansion, which has gained growing support in recent years within the business community, including from Business Leaders for Michigan and the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce.
Last year, Business Leaders for Michigan’s political action committee contributed $100,000 to a ballot initiative to expand Michigan’s civil rights law. The campaign has maintained support from some of the state’s largest companies, including major automakers, investor-owned utilities, Herman Miller Inc., and Whirlpool Corp.
“Today’s action is one step in a long journey, and as I state yesterday, I implore them to stand with the LGBTQ+ community by immediately calling upon lawmakers to be on the right side of history,” Knott said. “Southwest Michigan First leaders, including Lee Chatfield, must demand that the Legislature pass an amendment to our civil rights law to include sexual orientation, gender identity and expression without a carve out or exemption of any kind in order for it to be fully inclusive of all Michiganders.”
During his time as House Speaker, Chatfield blocked attempts to expand Elliott-Larsen unless it included religion-based exemptions and reportedly said such an expansion would “infringe on religious freedom.”