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Gay rights campaign challenges Michigan signature requirements in court

Craig Mauger
The Detroit News

Lansing — A campaign to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity in Michigan is suing the state in hopes of easing requirements for getting its proposal before voters during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Fair and Equal Michigan announced its lawsuit Tuesday afternoon against the Michigan Board of State Canvassers, Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson and Elections Director Jonathan Brater.

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The campaign, which launched in January and wants to change state law, says the enforcement of normal requirements for petition-initiated proposals during stay-at-home restrictions has prevented supporters from exercising their constitutional rights.

Under current law, the campaign would have to turn in 340,047 valid signatures by Wednesday to get its proposal before the Legislature. If the Legislature declined to approve it — the leaders of the GOP-controlled Legislature have voiced opposition — the policy would go on the ballot in November.

"Under normal times, this requirement is difficult to meet," the lawsuit says. "But the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with restrictions imposed by federal, state and local authorities on large gatherings and in-person contact, have made this signature requirement impossible to satisfy, effectively barring the right to initiate legislation."

Fair and Equal Michigan is joined in the lawsuit by two state lawmakers, Sen. Adam Hollier, D-Detroit, and Rep. Mari Manoogian, D-Birmingham, who want to support the voter-initiated proposal in the Legislature.

Another lawsuit aimed at easing signature requirements for candidates hoping to make primary ballots in Michigan was successful in federal court. The new suit was filed in the Michigan Court of Claims, which often handles suits against the state government.

Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson

The campaign has received support from a coalition of business leaders and civil rights groups, among others. According to a press release, it raised $640,000 and collected 100,000 petition signatures within its the first month.

The campaign collected 134,000 signatures before the pandemic hit, but had collected only 177,000 by Sunday, according to the press release.

"We will pursue our case to Michigan’s highest court to protect our progress, honor our financial support and ensure our volunteer energy proceeds unabated," said Trevor Thomas, the campaign's co-chair and president. "Even, and especially, at time of great difficulty, such as our current public health crisis, our precious constitutional rights must be upheld."

The group is seeking a declaration that the enforcement of the current requirements against it is unconstitutional. It also wants to reduce the number of signatures required to 127,518 and to extend the deadline to July 13. The proposed signature threshold is based on the percentage of days the campaign had to collect signatures under normal conditions.

cmauger@detroitnews.com