November 8th, voters in Traverse City will decide whether to keep the local non-discrimination law in place. It includes civil rights protections for people who are gay and transgender.
In the year since those protections were passed there's not been one complaint with the city. But people on both sides of the issue think there's a lot at stake.
Seeking Legal Protection
When not in class, Ashley Curtiss, 19, has been spending a lot of her time this fall on the phone and canvassing with a group called T.C. Equity. She's a student at Northwestern Michigan College, and lesbian. She says it's easy for her to spot people who are gay.
"I just can sort-of tell," she says. "It's mannerisms, really, and how you speak. And that's how I can tell if someone is like me or not."
That's why she gets a little self-conscious about her sexuality when she applies for a job.
"When I walk not a job interview or hand in my resume or whatever, I have to sort of step back and be like, 'Do I look like a lesbian?"
Curtiss says she's generally found Traverse City an accepting place, but she knows not everyone agrees with her morality. She thinks it's important to safeguard people who are gay and lesbian with legal protections, in things such as housing and employment.
Last year, city commissioners agreed. In a unanimous vote they extended the town's civil rights protections to people who are gay, lesbian and transgender.
Bad For Business?
The move raised the ire of a handful of folks, including Mike Mulcahy.
"This is another opportunity to thrash the system, to drive businesses out of Traverse City, to make business much more difficult," Mulcahy said a commission meeting in September of last year. He said well-intentioned employers could get caught up in false claims. "What's terrible is when you get a lawsuit going against you, and you're not even sure why."
The group launched a petition drive, hoping city voters will throw out the ordinance. That's why it's up for a vote in this election.
In general, though, the business community seems to have little interest.
"No, the ballot issue in Traverse City has not been a business issue," says Doug Luciani, the president of the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce. He says no one has raised concerns with the Chamber. "Most businesses, and I would say all the businesses, are so focused on compliance with Equal Opportunity and EEO type-of activities that this was, it really didn't affect their business."
A Question Of Religion
But Elk Rapids Attorney Steve Francis has been scrutinizing the local law and he says there's a certain group of Traverse City business owners who might want to take notice.
"The secondary effect of this particular ordinance is really the restriction of Christian speech and Christian belief, and that's what really concerns me," Francis says. He refers to the traditionally held belief among many evangelical Christians that homosexuality is a sin, and that marriage is solely between a man and a woman.
The law doesn't tell people what they can or can't believe, but Francis gives an example of how this might put a business owner in a quandary. He volunteers as an attorney with a national group called the Alliance Defense Fund, which defended a Christian couple who ran a photography studio in New Mexico. The owners ran afoul of a similar law when they refused to photograph a civil union between two women.
"So we argued that to force this couple to take pictures of a lesbian commitment ceremony, which was against their religious beliefs, was forced speech," he says. "The human rights commission found against this couple, fined them $6,600 and that's being appealed in state court in New Mexico. That's the kind of thing that really concerns me with this particular ordinance."
Francis argues the couple could have simply gone to another photographer.
The photographers got into trouble over a point in the law called public accommodation. It's widely known that the law in Traverse City says people cannot be denied housing or employment because they're gay or transgender, but it also says a business in Traverse City cannot refuse to serve someone because he or she is gay.
"I simply don't understand why they wouldn't except Christian business owners who have a religious view that they can't do that," Francis says.
But Blake Ringsmouth, a civil rights attorney in Traverse City, says he can't see any difference between a photography studio refusing to photograph a civil union or, for example, a restaurant that would refuse to serve food to the couple.
"While we're not trying to change people's hearts, necessarily, we are trying to say, 'Then keep it to yourself,' because hurting people in these fundamental areas of employment and housing and public accommodation are damaging to our community and it's not acceptable," Ringsmouth says. "Just like it's no longer acceptable to require African Americans to sit in the back of the bus."
But opponents say they're not convinced people who are homosexual experience a similar discrimination.