Ballot drive to expand civil rights law begins in Michigan

By David Eggert
Associated Press

LANSING (AP) - A group launched a 2020 ballot initiative Tuesday to expand Michigan's civil rights law to include anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ people, a step that would put the issue to voters if the Republican-led Legislature does not pass the measure.

Fair and Equal Michigan, a committee backed by business, political and philanthropic leaders, submitted petition language to the Board of State Canvassers. Once it is approved, the group will have until late May to collect the roughly 340,000 valid voter signatures needed to place the initiated bill before lawmakers.

If legislators do not adopt the legislation - similar bills have long stalled in the Legislature - the initiative would go to a statewide vote in November.

"This coalition of Michigan citizens has support across LGBTQ groups, the business and philanthropic sectors, and both sides of the political aisle. There is more that brings us together than forces us apart," said Mel Larsen, a former Republican lawmaker who co-sponsored the 1976 civil rights act.

The proposal would update the law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Religion-based discrimination, which already is barred, would be defined to include an individual's "religious beliefs."

Executives at several major Michigan corporations - DTE Energy, Consumers Energy, Herman Miller, Whirlpool and Dow - and California-based Apple issued statements supporting the initiative. Also backing it were leaders of the Michigan AFL-CIO, the NAACP's Detroit branch, and current and former political figures such as ex-U.S. Rep. Joe Schwarz, a Republican, and Lansing Mayor Andy Schor, a Democrat.

"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," said Patti Poppe, president and CEO of Jackson-based Consumers Energy. "To stay competitive in today's economy, we need to be bold in our efforts to make our community more welcoming to all."

Josh Hovey, spokesman for Fair and Equal Michigan, said the group has raised about half of the $3 million it needs for a paid signature-collection effort.

Last year, Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer joined with Democratic legislators to renew a push for legislation to add legal protections for LGBTQ people to the Elliott-Larsen Civil Right Act. But legislative committees have not held hearings on the bills.

GOP lawmakers have not embraced such measures, or have insisted that they be paired with a religious objections measure that is opposed by backers of LGBTQ rights.

Twenty-one states prohibit discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity while another-Wisconsin-bars discrimination against gays and lesbians but not transgender people, according to the Human Rights Campaign, a national LGBTQ rights organization.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over whether the federal civil rights law protects LGBT people from discrimination in employment - as a subset of sex discrimination. One of the cases involves a Michigan funeral home employee who was fired after disclosing that she was transitioning from male to female and would begin dressing as a woman.

Steve Liedel, a lawyer for the ballot committee, said it proposed defining religious-based discrimination to ensure that an employer cannot discriminate against an employee because of the worker's religious beliefs.

"If you have personal religious beliefs as an individual, those are beliefs that Michigan's Constitution protects, and this just clarifies that your rights continue to be protected under Elliott-Larsen," he said.

A similar ballot drive was abandoned in 2016 amid opposition from major gay-rights advocacy groups such as Equality Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan. They worried voters would defeat it, and they wanted to focus on other approaches, including lobbying lawmakers for legislation.

Equality Michigan Executive Director Erin Knott praised the 2020 ballot initiative on Tuesday.

"Given the Legislature's inaction, Equality Michigan supports the work of individual citizens to initiate legislation that will right this wrong once and for all," she said.

Published: Thu, Jan 09, 2020