12/04/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Social Media Can Protect Gay Rights Better Than A Law, Argues Christian Activist

During a hearing on Michigan legislation that would make it illegal to discriminate against LGBT individuals, the leader of a Christian advocacy group argued legislation isn't necessary when you have Twitter and Facebook.

The Michigan House Commerce Committee heard testimony on two competing bills Wednesday that would amend the state's Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act prohibiting discrimination against individuals based on race, religion or a variety of other factors. Both bills would add sexual orientation as a protected class, but one would also include gender identity and expression.

During the hearing, Keith den Hollander, chairman of the Christian Coalition of Michigan, testified that he objected to both bills for multiple reasons, including one standout claim. "In today's social media age, there's plenty of opportunity for these issues to be brought to light," he said. "We've seen instances where a waitress a year or so back made a complaint that she was denied a tip because of her sexual orientation. There was public outcry, the restaurant suffered consequences for that action, and I would say the court of public opinion addressed that issue far before the legal courts ever could have."

But some advocates and legal experts say that's particularly uniformed and incorrect.

"In many respects, it's just a silly claim," Wayne State University Law School professor Peter Hammer, who is also the director of the school's Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights, told The Huffington Post. "There's no way that social media is ever going to be a substitute for the kind of substantive protections that people need when their rights are violated."

It's true that in recent years, numerous stories of discrimination have reached wide audiences, in part because of social media. But public outcry doesn't necessarily lead to consequences for those who have discriminated.

In a notable example, a gay couple who was denied a wedding cake by a Colorado bakery in 2012 posted about the experience on Facebook, leading to a flurry of press, boycotts and online petitions both for and against the shop. But there were no legal ramifications for the bakery owner until the couple sued. Earlier this year, a judge ruled that the business owner had violated state law, and he was ordered to make wedding cakes for gay couples or pay a fine.

In Michigan, a couple facing similar discrimination would have no recourse.

Den Hollander and others testifying against the bills Wednesday also suggested legislation was not necessary because they hadn't heard of instances when LGBT discrimination had occurred in Michigan.

In an interview with HuffPost, Jay Kaplan, staff attorney for the ACLU of Michigan's LGBT Project, pointed out that it's contradictory to expect documented instances of discrimination when there's no legal process to file a claim of discrimination based on sexual orientation. Yet discrimination is still a common occurrence, he and others have said. Activist groups have shared individuals' personal stories to raise awareness of the fact that people can be fired or denied housing for being gay or transgender in Michigan.

Hammer said Michigan is gaining a reputation as a state that's unwelcoming to LGBT individuals.

"It's absolutely shameful that Michigan is one of a handful of states that are not actively trying to protect people's civil rights," Hammer said. "Discrimination is widespread in this state. There's discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in employment, in housing, in public accommodations -- and this is 50 years after Selma. We have to protect the rights of everybody."

Lawmakers first tried to amend Michigan's civil rights law to include protections for gays and lesbians in 1983, and there have routinely been failed attempts ever since.

House Commerce Committee Chair Frank Foster (R-Pellston) introduced the bill that would just add sexual orientation to the classes protected by the Elliott-Larsen Act last month. His push for the anti-discrimination legislation, despite backlash from some Republicans, was commended by some Democrats at the hearing. However, they fault it for not including protections for transgender individuals. The Democrats' bill, which does include protections for transgendered individuals, was sponsored in part by Rep. Brandon Dillon (D-Grand Rapids) and was introduced in September.

The committee on Wednesday heard testimony from supporters of the Democrats' bill, among them American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan Executive Director Kary Moss and retired Ford executive Allan D. Gilmour, who argued that the state needs protections for LGBT individuals.

Wednesday's committee hearing ended without a vote. There's little chance either bill will be put to a full House vote by the end of the legislative session, a spokesman for the House Speaker told MLive.

UPDATE: 5:00 p.m. EST -- In a conversation with HuffPost, den Hollander expanded on the point he made during testimony Wednesday, saying that public response to an instance of injustice "doesn't replace a court of law" but can sometimes be more effective or immediate.

We are not a very tolerant society when it comes to people being treated unjustly, and if people are aware of a business that's not hiring someone or is refusing to provide housing to someone because of their lifestyle, that's not something that the average person is going to stand by and tolerate. The people will deliver swift consequences in a lot of these cases, far faster than the justice system will, and sometimes those consequences have greater impact on the business or the individual than what the court is going to do. So it wasn't to suggest that we should replace the justice system, but rather that the ways we handle these things in society are changing.

Den Hollander added that he is opposed to including LGBT protections in the Elliott-Larsen Act in part because he thinks they would not solve the issue of bigotry in society.

"My argument and my opposition ... is not in any way to say that people should have the right to be bigoted or should have the right to treat people unfairly or be discriminatory," he said. "It was that I don't necessarily think this bill solves that. I think it actually creates more problems, creates a more litigious society."



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