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Lansing — A coalition of business executives, political activists and nonprofit leaders launched a campaign Tuesday toinitiate legislation that would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan.

The group, which calls itself Fair and Equal Michigan, hopes to collect 340,047 valid petition signatures by May 27. If it succeeds, the coalition's proposed policy to prohibit bias against gay and transgender residents — a long-debated reform — could end up on the statewide Nov. 3 ballot for voters to decide.

Supporters of the new campaign include the leaders of Dow, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy as well as Tim Cook, chief executive of California-based Apple.

"Discrimination runs contrary to our most basic of American values," Cook said in a Tuesday press release. "By protecting every person from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, we can help make sure that every person is measured by their talents and creativity and is treated with the dignity and respect that is due to all."

The citizen-initiated ballot measure seeks an expansion of the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, a 1976 law that already bars discrimination based on religion, race, age, sex and other attributes. The expansion has been debated for years in the state Capitol, with Republican legislative leaders saying they wanted to ban discrimination, but only as long as it would not infringe on religious rights.

Fair and Equal Michigan submitted its petition language Tuesday to the Department of State. The Board of State Canvassers has until Feb. 6 to approve or reject the petition language.

If the campaign gathers enough valid signatures, it would first go before the state Legislature. If legislative leaders decline to vote on it or approve it, the initiative would go before voters.

Former state Rep. Mel Larsen, who co-sponsored the original civil rights act in Michigan, said in a press release announcing the new campaign that it was "long past the time to recognize sexual orientation and gender identity."

"The Legislature can act at any time to amend the Civil Rights Act," Larsen said. "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."

Among those mentioned in the release announcing the coalition are Democrat Mark Bernstein, president of the Sam Bernstein Law Firm; Jeff Noel, corporate vice president at Whirlpool Corp.; Jerry Norcia, president and CEO of DTE Energy; and Jim Fitterling, CEO of Dow Chemical.

Patti Poppe, president and CEO of Consumers Energy, said in the announcement that expanding the civil rights law is "the right thing to do for our companies, our customers and Michigan."

"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 added. "To stay competitive in today's economy, we need to be bold in our efforts to make our communities more welcoming to all."

The proposal "requires analysis," said David Maluchnik, a spokesman for the Michigan Catholic Conference. The group's interest in the initiative would focus "on protecting the constitutional rights of religious individuals and institutions," Maluchnik said when asked Tuesday.

"It should be stated that Catholic teaching places a strong emphasis on treating every human person with dignity and respect," he added. "Further, nobody should be denied the right to housing based on a specific classification."

Fair and Equal Michigan's proposal not only adds sexual orientation and gender identity to the civil rights law, but it further defines the term "religion." Discrimination based on religion is already banned.

The proposed addition says "religion" includes "the religious beliefs of an individual." The language is meant to clarify the ban on religious discrimination and ensure that religious beliefs are given consideration, said Steven Liedel, an attorney who is working with the initiative campaign.

Individuals shouldn't face discrimination based on "who they are, who they love or the God they worship," Liedel said.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, a Democrat, and former Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, supported expanding the civil rights act to prevent discrimination against gay and transgender people. But the Legislature hasn't approved the policy change.

Questions about expanding Elliott-Larsen have always been whether the Legislature would eventually approve it or whether a collection of interest groups would form with the resources to get a proposal before voters, said Adrian Hemond, a Democrat and CEO with the Lansing-based consulting firm Grassroots Midwest.

If the petition makes the November ballot, "Today’s event gives you a tentative yes," Hemond said he didn't think the proposal would affect other races.

Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, previously told The Detroit News that any efforts to expand the civil rights act would be "heavily contested" in the  Legislature unless protections for religious freedom were added.

Asked about the new proposal, Amber McCann, spokeswoman for Shirkey, said his position on the matter is "well known."

Earlier in 2019, House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, said in a taping of “Off the Record” on WKAR-TV that he didn’t plan to hold a vote this term on any gay rights legislation. Chatfield won election to the state House in 2014 after beating an incumbent Republican in the GOP primary whom Chatfield criticized for pushing to expand the state’s anti-discrimination law.

"I do not believe we can pass this law while still protecting religious freedom," Chatfield said on the TV show. "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."

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission essentially extended anti-discrimination protections to gay and transgender residents in May 2018 through an interpretive statement. The statement allowed the Department of Civil Rights to investigate bias claims under an existing law banning sex-based discrimination.

But GOP lawmakers questioned the commission's authority, and then-Attorney General Bill Schuette, a Republican, labeled the interpretation "invalid."

cmauger@detroitnews.com

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