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Michigan LGBT rights initiative launched for November ballot

LANSING — A coalition of civil rights, business and political leaders is launching a petition drive initiative to expand Michigan law by including anti-discrimination protections for gay and transgender residents. 

Organizers who announced the effort Tuesday hope to spur action by the Republican-led Legislature, whose leaders have cited religious freedom concerns in resisting similar legislation, or put the issue on the November ballot for voters to decide. 

Petition language submitted to state election officials 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.

It’s an idea first proposed in 1983, and one supporters say has grown increasingly popular with the public following nationwide legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015. 

“We just want to be judged on the job we do — not who we are or who we love—and we want to be treated equally in the eyes of government,” said Trevor Thomas, a co-chair of the new Fair and Equal Michigan ballot committee and board chair for Equality Michigan Action.  

Current Michigan law prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, color, national origin, age, sex, height, weight, familial status or marital status. 

The initiative would expand and codify a 2018 interpretation from the Michigan Civil Rights Commission, which held that bias against gay and transgender residents is already illegal under a prohibition on “sex” discrimination. 

If enacted, Michigan would join 21 other states with laws that explicitly prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, according to the non-profit Movement Advancement Project. 

Organizers will need to collect at least 340,047 valid voter signatures within 180 days to qualify for the 2020 ballot. But they’ll ask the Board of State Canvassers to approve the form of their petition before beginning circulation. That means they’ll likely start later this month in the heart of winter, which will likely complicate outdoor signature gathering efforts. 

State lawmakers will still have “a chance to lead,” Thomas told Bridge Magazine in a phone interview. 

If his group obtains enough signatures to initiate the legislation, lawmakers would have 40 days to adopt it or allow it to go to the ballot. That “keeps the power in their hands to do the right thing,” he said. 

As of October, the Michigan Department of Civil Rights had opened 44 investigations into LGBT discrimination complaints since 2018. Fourteen had been resolved, including nine dismissed for insufficient evidence, two that resulted in a settlement agreement and others that were withdrawn or adjusted. 

While business groups have pushed similar anti-discrimination proposals since at least 2014, GOP leaders in the state Legislature have not acted on their calls. The new initiative represents the most aggressive effort of its kind in the state.

Business leaders backing the petition drive include DTE Energy President and CEO Jerry Norcia, Consumers Energy President and CEO Patti Poppe, Herman Miller President and CEO Andi Owen, Whirlpool Corp. Vice President Jeff Noel and Dow Inc. CEO Jim Fitterling.

“Advancing the fair treatment of all people - regardless of their race, religion, disability, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity - is a key component of retaining and growing a world-class, talented workforce,” Poppe said in a statement. 

“To stay competitive in today's economy, we need to be bold in our efforts to make our communities more welcoming to all. And efforts to expand Elliott-Larsen is also the right thing to do for our companies, our customers and Michigan.”

An “honorary leadership committee” announced Tuesday also features several Republicans, including former Rep. Mel Larsen, who co-sponsored the 44-year-old civil rights law the initiative would amend. Other GOP supporters include former state party chair Susy Avery, former House Speaker Rick Johnson, veteran adviser Richard McLellan and former U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, a moderate who left the Republican Party after serving in Congress and now identifies as a political independent. 

Republican former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2014 urged the Legislature to consider updating the state’s civil rights law. His successor, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, has championed LGBT rights legislation sponsored by Rep. Jon Hoadley of Kalamazoo and Sen. Jeremy Moss of Southfield. 

But legislative leaders have been consistent in their opposition. 

State Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, has said any such proposal would be “heavily contested” in the Legislature. In 2015, shortly before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Michigan’s gay marriage ban, he sponsored legislation that would have created a state-level Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, has questioned the need for LGBT anti-discrimination protections and won election in 2014 by defeating a Republican incumbent who had introduced gay rights legislation. 

“I do not believe we can pass this law while still protecting religious freedom,” Chatfield said last year on WKAR-TV’s “Off The Record.” 

“You’ve seen these laws passed in other states where what happens, in my opinion, is a reverse discrimination against those who have religious beliefs.”

There have been high-profile clashes between gay rights and religious freedoms across the country in recent years, including Colorado, where a baker was sanctioned by the state's civil rights commission for refusing to design a custom wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

That decision was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court because the Colorado commission was "neither tolerant nor respectful" of the baker’s sincerely held religious beliefs, now-retired Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the 2018 opinion. 

"The commission’s hostility was inconsistent with the First Amendment’s guarantee that our laws be applied in a manner that is neutral toward religion," he said for the 7-2 majority. 

LGBT advocates note Michigan law already prohibits discrimination based on religion. The new initiative would define religion as “the religious beliefs of an individual.” 

That language mirrors wording in the Michigan Constitution, said attorney Steven Liedel, legal counsel for the ballot committee. "It just sort of clarifies that discrimination based on religion is also prohibited," he said.

Pollster Richard Czuba of Glengariff Group Inc. said public support for LGBT anti-discrimination protections has strengthened significantly over the past decade. But even more remarkable, he said, is how opposition has softened. 

"I think the voters are well ahead of the Legislature on this issue, and it's a question of can they keep up," he said. 

Working with the new ballot committee, Czuba asked 600 likely Michigan voters whether an employer should be able to fire an LGBT employee because that employee's sexual orientation conflicts with the employer's religious beliefs. 

Eighty-three percent of respondents said "no," according to Czuba, who attributed growing support for anti-discrimination protections primarily to a shift by Republican voters. 

"There are very few issues that have polled this way in Michigan," he said. "Auto insurance reform is one. Protecting the Great Lakes is another. And this is the third I think that polls at this kind of level across the partisan divide."

Organizers expect to spend roughly $3 million on the petition drive and have already secured roughly $1.5 million in pledged funding for the effort. They’ll need to submit signatures by the end of May in order to advance the initiative and qualify for the 2020 ballot. 

Because of the winter start that will pose challenges for outdoor circulation, they plan to use both paid and volunteer circulators.

“It’s cold outside,” Thomas acknowledged. “We know that it’s asking a Herculean effort for individuals to collect signatures required to initiate this law and introduce … a citizen’s bill on the floor of the House and Senate to get the job done.”

Thomas is one of four co-chairs for the new ballot committee, including Alanna Maguire, the president of Fair Michigan and wife of Democratic Attorney General Dana Nessel. Nessel attempted to spearhead a similar initiative in 2016 but did not have the backing of major LGBT rights groups such as Equality Michigan, which is now on board. 

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