Michigan Pride on the Capitol steps, June 15, 2019 | Susan J. Demas
Updated, 3:02 p.m., 1/9/19
A new ballot initiative filed Tuesday could make civil rights protections for LGBTQ Michiganders a reality, after attempts to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act in the state Legislature have languished for years.
And, perhaps in an effort to finally get state GOP leaders on board, the petition also includes language that would clarify* anti-discrimination protections against individuals on the basis of their religious beliefs.
The citizen-led petition was submitted by the new grassroots campaign Fair and Equal Michigan. It already boasts the support of top business and political leaders around the state, including Consumers Energy, DTE Energy, a slew of LGBTQ advocacy groups, current and former state politicians, and – perhaps most notably – Apple CEO Tim Cook.
The support from business interests is seen as a big selling point for Republicans and voters, although it still remains unclear whether it will be enough to sway top GOP legislators.
“Business leaders know that to stay competitive we need to support the people we employ, and that means making clear that there is no place for discrimination in the workplace. … If Michigan wants to compete, we must take a clear stand against discrimination in any form. This effort strengthens Michigan business, our economy and our people,” said DTE Energy President and CEO Jerry Norcia in a statement Tuesday.
Fair and Equal Michigan’s ballot initiative would specifically amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976 to prohibit discrimination based on an individual’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. This would extend fundamental civil rights protections to members of Michigan’s LGBTQ community.
The “initiation of law” petition would provide state lawmakers with one more shot at passing the amendment in the Michigan Legislature, and kick it to the voters at the ballot box in November if Republicans hold up the effort.
And according to polling conducted by the Chicago-based Glengariff Group over the last decade, support for LGBTQ anti-discrimination laws among Michigan voters has never been higher.
“It’s sitting at 77%,” said Glengariff pollster Richard Czuba, who frequently surveys Michigan issues and races. “I’ve been polling on this issue for over 10 years, every single year, and we see growth continue each year. … Opposition has been cut in half over that 10 year period.”
Past clashes over measures
In previous years, advocacy groups in Michigan had clashed over which path to take in order to enshrine LGBTQ protections in Elliott-Larsen.
One faction tried to initiate a constitutional amendment in 2016; the other insisted that efforts should focus on getting it done in the state Legislature. The latter had included those like Equality Michigan, an LGBTQ advocacy group that is now throwing its support behind the ballot measure launched on Tuesday.
“Given the Legislature’s inactivity, we feel that this is an appropriate next step,” said Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan.
State Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield), one of two lawmakers whose legislation will now be used as a basis for the citizen-led proposal, says that he has always believed a ballot proposal should only be used as a last resort for this issue.
Moss told the Advance in a phone interview Wednesday that he supports Fair and Equal Michigan’s campaign because it takes an “all of the above strategy,” whereas previous attempts have been either purely ballot box-focused or legislative action-focused. Moss cites this new approach as the reason for so much support.
“I don’t think anybody wants to see LGBT rights played out in the context of a political campaign. We should be doing it in the Legislature because it’s the right thing to do,” Moss said. “It’s just that this is the reality of where we are in Michigan. Our legislative colleagues aren’t moving our bills, [so] this is probably the most effective way to get it done.”
Now-Attorney General Dana Nessel has pushed for a ballot measure all along. As a Detroit-area attorney, Nessel spearheaded an initiative to expand LGBTQ rights as a constitutional amendment under the group Fair Michigan, but the ballot proposal was ultimately dropped due to disagreements among advocate groups. The group is now led by her wife, Alanna Maguire.
“I’m unbelievably proud to support my wife, Alanna Maguire, who is co-chairing this incredibly important ballot proposal which will amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to include legal protections for LGBTQ people,” Nessel said in a Facebook post Tuesday. “I encourage everyone to sign this petition and finally ensure equal protection for hundreds of thousands of Michiganders who are currently unprotected under state or federal law.”
The new coalition, Fair and Equal Michigan, has drafted an “initiation of law” petition, the first effort that seems to satisfy many key players on both sides of the debate. It provides for one big, citizen-led opportunity for the Legislature to take action but also lets Michigan voters have their say if that push ends up falling through.
Upon approval of their petition language by the Board of State Canvassers, Fair and Equal Michigan will need to collect at least 340,047 valid signatures from Michigan voters to submit by May 27 to get on the November ballot – unless the GOP-controlled Legislature takes action before then, which is unlikely.
“Of course, if [legislators] do so before May 27, then we don’t have to turn in signatures and that’s great. We see it as two paths that complement each other,” said Trevor Thomas, co-chair of Fair and Equal Michigan.
Under the law, the state Legislature has 40 days after it receives a petition to adopt or reject it. If the Legislature takes no action or rejects the proposal in that time period, it goes to the ballot box on Nov. 3, the date of the general presidential election.
Legislative efforts to expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act have stalled numerous times before in Michigan.
The latest push happened in June, when state Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo) and Moss introduced House Bill 4688 and Senate Bill 351, respectively. The bills received significant Democratic support in the state Legislature, with all House and Senate Democrats (and one House Republican) signing on as co-sponsors. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also led a press conference.
But despite this legislative support – and 2019 polling showing that the majority of Michigan voters from both parties would support such an amendment – state GOP leaders in both chambers have remained steadfast in their unwillingness to move the legislation forward.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey (R-Clarklake) and House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering) have both stated that in order for the bills to get a vote on their watch, religious exemptions would also need to be included in the state Constitution.
Thomas points out that “there is already a religious exemption in place” within Elliott-Larson.
“And so we’re not asking for anyone to tinker with the law, other than adding sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to protect LGBTQ Michiganders,” Thomas said.
However, the new petition language expands the already existing protections for religious beliefs. The only other proposed change in the ballot measure would extend the definition of “religion” to also prohibit discrimination based on the “religious beliefs of an individual.”
But Moss doesn’t have much hope that this will change the minds of the GOP leadership.
“There’s not much that’s going to please Sen. Shirkey or Speaker Chatfield within this language, so I don’t believe there’s room to negotiate with them. They don’t have a governing view outside of very conservative Christianity,” Moss said.
“I’m still working on getting the 2019 menorah placed on the front lawn of the state Capital, and that doesn’t subscribe to their purview. So, we’re not getting a menorah, so we’re certainly not getting LGBT rights from them,” he added.
Czuba also argues that there is only a sliver of the Michigan GOP voter base that feels the same way that Shirkey and Chatfield do. Glengariff polling shows that only 7.5% of Michigan voters would support allowing LGBTQ-based employee discrimination based on an employer’s firmly held religious beliefs.
“The LGBTQ community has been waiting for 37 years on this bill,” Czuba said. “This is best handled by the Legislature. And if they won’t move it, then the Michigan Constitution offers the citizens of the state their own opportunity to pass the legislation.”
Knott says Equality Michigan is “committed to continuing to work with our elected officials in the Legislature to find a path forward to do this legislatively,” but is also fully supportive of the new citizen-led initiative if the first legislative phase of the ballot measure fails.
“We know that 80% of Michiganders have a loved one a friend, a neighbor, a co-worker that identifies as part of the LGBTQ community. … [This amendment] sends a message that all are welcome here, and if you live, work or play in Michigan, you will be treated fairly and justly,” Knott said.
In an emailed statement Tuesday, Moss and Hoadley said the ballot initiative should serve as further motivation for the Legislature to get their legislation pushed through. Hoadley announced in April that he will be running to represent Michigan’s 6th Congressional District against incumbent U.S. Rep. Fred Upton (R-St. Joseph).
“Today’s announcement of a prospective ballot proposal … serves to renew our call for the Legislature to move swiftly to pass the bills we sponsored because Michigan residents are fed up with legislative inaction,” Moss said.
“The Legislature has everything it needs to act immediately to prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination, except for the willingness of the majority party. We need to fix that in 2020,” Hoadley said.
Endorsements from corporate interests like Apple could be valuable in getting more business-friendly Republicans and citizens on board with the ballot proposal.
“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,” said Patti Poppe, president and CEO of Consumers Energy in a statement.
Moss says he is “thankful” for the growing support in the business community for LGBTQ issues like Elliott-Larsen, but adds that he is skeptical about how far their support actually goes.
“If Whirlpool and Dow and Consumers are serious about this, then they should not support any candidate who does not support Elliott-Larsen,” Moss said.
“It’s nice to add a growing chorus of support for Elliott-Larsen, but if you’re funding the exact people who are gonna oppose it, it’s kind of this hollow support in the end,” he added.
Moss says that campaign finance reports for 2019, which will be released later this month, will show which business entities have been funding lawmakers who oppose LGBTQ rights.
*Correction: This story was updated to note the petition clarifies anti-discrimination protections on the basis of their religious beliefs.
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