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Published in Economic Development
Protesters outside of Broadway Avenue in Grand Rapids on July 11. Protesters outside of Broadway Avenue in Grand Rapids on July 11. MIBIZ FILE PHOTO

Attorneys dispute whether Michigan Supreme Court ruling still allows GR wedding venue to prohibit same-sex marriages

BY Friday, July 29, 2022 04:15pm

EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional comments from the Great Lakes Justice Center and the ACLU of Michigan.

GRAND RAPIDS — Attorneys are disputing whether a Thursday Michigan Supreme Court ruling banning discrimination based on sexual orientation still allows a Grand Rapids wedding venue to not host same-sex marriages.

In a landmark 5-2 ruling, the court confirmed that the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination in the workplace, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation. The act, enacted in 1976, also prohibits discrimination based on religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status and marital status. 

The ruling brings into question the policies of the recently opened Broadway Avenue wedding venue in Grand Rapids. The venue owners, Hannah and Nick Natale, have a policy against hosting same-sex marriages at the venue, as well as marriages involving any transgender or gender nonconforming person, the owners previously told MiBiz during an open house event for the venue.

While an attorney representing the Natales says their policy — based on their religious beliefs — is protected under the First Amendment, civil rights attorneys say otherwise.

“If a business is open to the public and they refuse to work with people because of a protected category then they are going to be in violation (of the Civil Rights Act) and can be sued,” said Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for ACLU of Michigan’s LGBT Project. “It’s historical and a landmark civil rights decision for the LGBTQ community.”

David Kallman, an attorney for the Great Lakes Justice Center who represents the Natales, said the Michigan Supreme Court ruling does not limit the couple’s First Amendment rights.

“The decision is only on whether or not the definition of the word ‘sex’ included sexual orientation and gender identity,” Kallman said in an interview. “The court has created a collision of two protected categories and our position is they are protected just as much as a same-sex couple.”

Kallman added that the couple views marriage as a religious ceremony and are thus exercising their religious beliefs.

Nick Natale previously told MiBiz that the venue’s policy was indeed based on their religious beliefs.

“We’re not interested in everybody,” Nick Natale said earlier this month when asked whether the business would cater to every couple. “We’re interested in serving our God and celebrating the love we feel he created.”

Kaplan countered that opening a business subjects owners to additional laws, including civil rights laws.

“The state of the law right now is when you have a business and are open to the public, you can’t pick and choose when it comes to protected groups,” Kaplan said. “Certainly people have a right to their religious beliefs, but it’s never able to be used as a sword against other people.”

Meanwhile, the city of Grand Rapids has received 10 complaints that Broadway Avenue’s policy violates the city’s human rights ordinance. Patti Caudill, diversity and inclusion manager with the city of Grand Rapids, told MiBiz that those complaints are being reviewed to determine if a violation has occurred.

The city’s human rights ordinance team — which includes the office of equity and engagement, the city attorney’s office and the office of oversight and public accountability — has to evaluate all complaints and the nature of the alleged incident to determine whether a potential violation of the ordinance may have occurred and determine the most appropriate federal, state or local agency in which to refer the complaint, Caudill said. 

The city has 90 days to conduct the investigation. In most cases, the city refers a complaint to the state level, Caudill said. The city might look at forwarding more cases to the Michigan Department of Civil Rights after the state’s Supreme Court ruling on Thursday, Caudill added.

‘Monumental victory’

The Michigan Supreme Court ruling was based on a 2020 lawsuit filed by two businesses that denied service to LGBTQ people based on the owners’ religious beliefs. Rouch World, a campground in St. Joseph County, denied hosting a same-sex wedding. Owners of UpRooted Electrolysis in the Upper Peninsula also refused service to a transgender person who was going through sexual reassignment surgery.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in a statement called the decision, written by Republican Justice Elizabeth Clement, a “monumental victory,” that will “save livest.”

“For too long, LGBTQ+ Michiganders had been left out of our state’s civil rights protections,” Whitmer said Thursday. “No longer. Because of this ruling, nobody can legally be fired from their job or evicted from their home because of who they love.” 

Business Leaders for Michigan — along with major corporations in Michigan and business advocacy groups — has long advocated for amending the state’s civil rights law to include protections based on sexual orientation.

“Our people are the lifeblood of our businesses — and this ruling ensures Michiganders cannot be discriminated against based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” Business Leaders for Michigan President and CEO Jeff Donofrio said in a statement. “The Michigan Supreme Court’s decision makes Michigan a stronger and more competitive state.”

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Read 2198 times Last modified on Saturday, 30 July 2022 05:57
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