Jacques: LGBT proposal likely to flop

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Michigan’s best chance of adding protections against discrimination for gays and lesbians got shot down a year ago.

And the latest effort to address this missing piece by changing the state’s Constitution with a ballot proposal is probably going to fail, too. The impact of that failure could seriously harm any future attempts at expanding the anti-discrimination law.

Even some strong proponents of protections for gays, lesbians and bisexual and transgender individuals are opposed to the ballot proposal.

“I think it’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard,” says Jim Murray, president of AT&T Michigan.

In early 2014, Murray helped spearhead the Michigan Competitive Workforce Coalition, a group of around 60 businesses and organizations that aimed to win political support for inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity in the civil rights law.

Lawmakers in December 2014 were very close to passing legislation that would expand the state’s 40-year-old Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. Gov. Rick Snyder had also supported that effort, believing it would make the state more attractive to employers — and attract a talented workforce.

But the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan and Equality Michigan ultimately quashed that effort because GOP lawmakers failed to include gender identity in the legislation. These groups chose to give up on sexual orientation rather than compromise at all.

Now, it’s going to be a long time before the Legislature will take it up again. The latest crop of lawmakers is even more conservative, and the new leadership isn’t interested in tackling the issue.

That was a missed opportunity. And the Fair Michigan ballot committee, which got its petition language approved this week by a state board, may have good intentions but the proposal could backfire badly. The group plans to start circulating petitions this month.

Greg McNeilly, Michigan-based GOP political consultant, also thinks the petition drive is shortsighted.

“It’s either naive or politically stupid,” says McNeilly, who is gay and a supporter of broader legal protections for the LGBT community.

Given the failure in November of a similar proposal in Houston, Texas, supporters of Fair Michigan should be concerned. Sara Wurfel, spokeswoman for the initiative here, says Michigan is not Texas, and that the failure of that measure doesn’t mean the same thing will happen in this state. But it definitely could.

Voters struck down the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance in part because opponents made the case that, if passed, sexual predators under the guise of being transgender could have access to women’s bathrooms. That concept freaks people out. And you can be sure the same tactic would be used in Michigan.

Murray, who is now on the board of Equality Michigan, says he’s still working behind the scenes to garner support for a legislative fix to Elliott-Larsen, but he doesn’t expect action in Lansing anytime soon.

He’s willing to wait. As Murray notes, if the Legislature fails to pass something, it’s easier for lawmakers and supporters to dust themselves off and try again.

“If you go before the people and you fail, you’re down for decades,” Murray says.