Bipartisan group seeks gay rights plan on 2016 ballot

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau
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Lansing — A bipartisan group formed a 2016 ballot committee Friday in pursuit of a constitutional amendment prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender and gender identity.

The Fair Michigan campaign will propose a constitutional amendment enshrining anti-discrimination protections for gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual residents in housing, the workplace and public accommodations.

Dana Nessel, the Detroit attorney who led the case to overturn Michigan’s gay marriage ban, said Friday she will co-chair the ballot campaign with Republican Lansing attorney Richard McLellan.

The ballot campaign is in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s June ruling to legalize same-sex marriage and an unwillingness of Michigan’s conservative Legislature to add anti-discrimination protections to Michigan’s civil rights law for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents, Nessel said.

“It’s been so long that the Michigan Legislature has really squandered every opportunity that it’s had to protect people from discrimination,” she told The Detroit News on Friday.

But Michigan’s LGBT community is not entirely united in asking voters to enshrine rights in the constitution during a politically charged presidential election.

AT&T Michigan President Jim Murray, who is gay, said there is impatience in the community after an effort to amend the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act faltered in the Legislature in December.

“Having setbacks in the Legislature is a lot different than losing a referendum,” said Murray, a former Republican legislative aide. “If you lose at the ballot box, you are finished for decades. There would be a boat load of money spent in opposition with an uncertain outcome. It’s a huge, unacceptable gamble.”

One of the state’s leading advocacy groups for gays and lesbians is not part of the Fair Michigan ballot campaign.

“Not yet anyway,” said Stephanie White, executive director of Equality Michigan. “I hope there will be some community conversations about whether this is right path to take.”

White noted the LGBT community was dealt a decade-long political setback after Michigan voters banned same-sex marriage at the ballot box in 2004.

“If the general public votes against our rights, then lawmakers are, of course, less motivated to take on this issue if they feel like the voters might hold them accountable,” said White, a former political director at the Michigan Democratic Party.

Nessel said the constitutional amendment is needed as a result of the Supreme Court’s historic ruling. She represented Hazel Park nurses April DeBoer and Jayne Rowse in a case seeking to legally adopt one another’s children and get married.

The Supreme Court ruled in their favor on June 26, a Friday, sparking a flurry of same-sex marriage ceremonies over the weekend.

During the following week, Nessel said she received phone calls from newly married gay and lesbian Michigan residents who said they were fired for getting married to their longtime same-sex partners.

Michigan’s civil rights law allows people to sue an employer for discrimination related to their sex, race, religion, ethnicity, weight and other factors. But they cannot sue based on their sexual orientation or gender identity in the case of transgender individuals, Nessel said.

“You need a law to sue under, and we don’t have any laws,” Nessel said. “We have nothing in the state of Michigan. And that’s why this is so badly needed.”

Nessel said the ballot initiative is being endorsed by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson, a Republican, and Kym Worthy, the Democratic prosecutor of Wayne County.

“When you have Kym Worthy and L. Brooks Patterson committed to the same issue, I really think this is really something worth supporting.”

Worthy’s spokeswoman confirmed the prosecutor supports the initiative. Patterson could not be reached for comment.

The Fair Michigan committee has assembled a campaign committee that includes Lansing public relations executive Kelly Rossman-McKinney, Democratic strategist Howard Edelson and pollster Richard Czuba.

The group will need to collect more than 316,000 signatures to get a constitutional amendment on the ballot. Most groups spend at least $1 million hiring workers to collect signatures.

Nessel predicted the campaign will have support from Michigan corporations, many of which have advocated for extending the state’s civil rights law to the LGBT community.

“I think it’s going to be a short period of time before you see us stockpiling the funds we need to go out and get the signatures needed to get on the ballot,” Nessel said.

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