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Michigan gay rights proposal off fall ballot; ruling opens door for 2022

LANSING — A gay rights group trying to put a non-discrimination proposal before Michigan voters won’t qualify for the 2020 ballot but is now aiming for 2022 after a judge said it deserves more time to collect signatures because of government restrictions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic.

Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens on Wednesday ordered the state to give the Fair and Equal Michigan ballot committee 69 additional days to collect signatures, mirroring the length of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order that was lifted June 1.

That would push the petition drive into October, disqualifying it from the November ballot because of printing deadlines. Absentee ballots must be mailed to military and overseas voters by mid-September. 

It’s not clear if Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson, the named defendant in the case, has any plans to appeal. Her office declined comment.

If the injunction granted by Stephens stands, Benson’s office would be prohibited from enforcing a state law that requires ballot groups to collect all signatures within a 180-day window. 

That rule makes sense in “ordinary times” but was an unconstitutional burden given the pandemic and Whitmer’s executive orders, Stephens ruled.

“For 69 days, the people of the state were ordered to ‘stay at home’ except for activity that was necessary to sustain or protect human life or health,” she wrote in a 17-page opinion. “Violation of this imperative was a misdemeanor.”

Stephens, who recently sided with Whitmer over the state Legislature in a battle over the governor’s emergency powers, rejected a request by Fair and Equal Michigan to also reduce the number of signatures it needs to make the ballot. 

The committee must still collect 340,042 valid signatures, Stephens wrote, declining to give the group the same kind of a relief a federal judge awarded congressional candidates in April. 

Fair and Equal Michigan had collected more than 130,000 signatures by mid-March but sued the state after collection efforts stalled amid the pandemic. The group tried to collect signatures electronically in a separate test of Michigan law but struggled with that effort as well.

Trevor Thomas, co-chair of Fair and Equal Michigan, said Stephens’ order “validates the voices of supporters” and ensures “their signed canvassed petitions will apply to the next election cycle in 2022. 

He encouraged the Legislature to act sooner. 

“The order today is consistent with what we always set out to do: Apply much needed focus on the Legislature to pass the first-ever LGBTQ rights bill or citizens will do it for you,” Thomas said in a statement, noting the group can now collect signatures through October.  

“The Legislature has blocked attempts for 37 years to pass these basic human rights and this solution gives Legislative leaders and advocates additional time to finally judge people on the job they do, not who they are or who they love.”

The group’s proposal for initiated legislation would expand the definition of “sex” in the Michigan Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to include “sexual orientation” and “gender identity or expression,” guaranteeing safeguards in housing, public accommodation and employment.

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