Natalie Johnson and Megan Oswalt tried to get married at a wedding venue in southern Michigan. The venue said no. Photo courtesy Johnson and Oswalt
Natalie Johnson and Megan Oswalt tried to get married at a wedding venue in southern Michigan. The venue said no.

They started out fighting for their dream wedding, but ended up with a court ruling that made LGBTQ Michiganders vulnerable to evictions.

STURGIS, Mich.—Natalie Johnson and Megan Oswalt wanted to get married at a wedding venue in Sturgis called Rouch World, a beautiful 300-acre slice of nature in southern Michigan. 

Rouch World is a park serving off-road vehicles, private events, and camping. It hosts catch-and-release fishing, boating, and occasionally weddings. 

The venue was perfect for them—until the venue refused to provide services to the couple because they were gay. 

Johnson and Oswalt’s story made it to the Michigan Court of Claims,  which sided against them, ruling that venues don’t need to host LGBTQ couples, according to the Michigan Court of Claims. In fact, they can deny LGBTQ families like Johnson and Oswalt. 

And, that same ruling that halted Johnson and Oswalt’s dream wedding could also leave the women homeless and jobless.

Lesbians, the court ruled, were not protected against discrimination in Michigan.

The Consequences of Allowing Discrimination

The court said that discrimination of that type wasn’t prohibited under Michigan civil rights law. That same ruling applies to discrimination in housing as well, and with a deluge of eviction cases on the horizon, missing that protection could be dangerous for LGBTQ Michiganders. 

As courts brace for a flood of cases related to the pandemic and Michiganders falling behind on rent, evictions have been allowed to continue, just not to be finalized, for any reason including evictions for people based on sexual orientation. Outside specific cities like Lansing and Kalamazoo who have local protections, any LGBTQ Michigander could lose their home at any time. 

The good news is, most Michiganders want that to change. And they will do it through the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, or ELCRA.

“Over 76% of Michiganders support amending (ELCRA) to include sexual orientation, gender identity, and expression,” Erin Knott, Executive Director of Equality Michigan, told The ‘Gander. Amending that act would add protections for Johnson, Oswalt and other LGBTQ Michiganders.

Knott recently used a Kalamazoo-area business advocacy group naming a CEO who fought against LGBTQ rights in the Legislature to highlight the continued struggles LGBTQ Michiganders face in fighting for their rights. She told The ‘Gander that the situation helped remind people that still, Michigan permits discrimination most Michiganders oppose. 

“People scratching their heads saying, ‘What, you mean you can be discriminated against here in Michigan in 2021 simply because of who you are and who you love?’ And the answer is, unfortunately, yes,” Knott said. “So join the movement and help us change it once and for all.”

And that movement is well underway in Michigan’s Legislature. 

Fixing ELCRA

A bipartisan effort spearheaded by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Ferndale) and Rep. Laurie Pohutsky (D-Livonia) rolled out in early March that would amend ELCRA to include sexual orientation and gender identity. The proposal has support across the aisle and the backing of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

While some new protections for LGBTQ Michiganders were enshrined by the US Supreme Court in 2020 thanks to a vase brought by Michigander Aimee Stephens, Johnson and Oswalt’s wedding plans show that there are still areas in Michigan law where LGBTQ Michiganders are left behind. That, Pohutsky said, is the reason ELCRA is needed now. But that’s not the only reason this is the time to act on ending discrimination.

“There are gaps that still exist, and these bills offer a bipartisan path for the Legislature to address them immediately,” Pohutsky said in a press conference. “It’s 2021, we’ve been battling a pandemic that has been indiscriminate and devastating for a year now. During that time we have all relied upon each other to get us through this crisis. We’re going to have to continue to rely on one another to rebuild our economy as we recover. If there’s anything we’ve learned through this time, it’s that when our backs are against the wall it doesn’t matter who the person fighting beside you loves or what their gender identity is.”

Of course, the Moss-Pohutsky plan isn’t the only way to expand Michigan’s protections to the LGBTQ community. A petition drive is bound for the 2022 ballot, where Michiganders will be able to vote on the issue and, as Knott pointed out, likely pass it overwhelmingly. Eventually, Johnson and Oswalt will be able to marry where they choose and be safe from eviction or job loss as a result of that marriage. Moss framed this effort as the Legislature’s chance to be on the right side of history. 

“There is a reckoning coming on this,” Moss said. “We’re not advocating for the membership of the Senate or House of Representatives to be heard, we’re advocating for the state of Michigan and public support to be heard on this.”

And the voice of Michiganders can be heard by contacting your legislators and discussing ELCRA.