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Jacques: Gay rights fight belongs in Legislature, not ballot

Ingrid Jacques
The Detroit News

Here we go again. 

Business leaders, former politicians and LGBTQ activists have coalesced around making Michigan a safe and welcoming place for all citizens, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Fair and Equal Michigan coalition launched Tuesday, with the goal of forcing a change to the state’s 1976 Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, sex and other factors in employment and housing. But it still doesn’t include gays and lesbians or transgender individuals. 

A rainbow flag flies at Motor City Pride in Detroit's Hart Plaza in 2018.

Sound familiar? You can be forgiven if you’re experiencing déjà vu. In late 2015, backers floated a similar proposal called Fair Michigan, following a failed attempt to pass the protections in the Legislature in 2014. Yet that initiative flopped quickly, torpedoed in part by members of the LGBTQ community who felt trying to change the state’s constitution via the ballot was the wrong way to go — at least at that time. 

More:Group launches petition campaign to ban bias against gays in Michigan

More:Jacques: It's job of lawmakers to amend civil rights law

This new effort seems to have learned from past mistakes. 

Michigan pollster Richard Czuba, founder of the Glengariff Group, surveyed citizens ahead of Fair and Equal Michigan’s announcement, and says public perceptions have shifted strongly in favor of including LGBTQ individuals in the civil rights law. 

Czuba says 77% of Michigan residents support the effort, with 61% strongly supporting it. He says the strength of the commitment bodes well for the measure. Even backing among Republicans has increased, he says. 

“The solution is so elegant,” says Czuba. “It’s tightly focused on employment and public accommodation. It’s not a tortured proposal in any way. Voters react favorably to proposals that are simple and don’t try to trick them.”

Despite efforts by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to extend LGBTQ protections to state employees and Attorney General Dana Nessel’s mission to bend the existing law to her will, Michigan has not joined 21 states and Washington, D.C., in banning discrimination statewide for LGBTQ individuals. 

Governor Gretchen Whitmer speaks with Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield before her State of the State speech in this file photo from Tuesday, February 12, 2019. Michigan lawmakers on Friday approved a sweeping plan to reform the state's no-fault auto insurance system negotiated by Whitmer and Republican legislative leaders.

Rather than seek a change to the constitution, this ballot proposal would focus on expanding the Elliott-Larsen law. 

That’s intentional. Trevor Thomas, co-chair of Fair and Equal Michigan, as well as board chair of Equality Michigan Action, says the coalition wants the Legislature to get involved. 

“Our point that we try to stress is that we fully hope the Legislature takes action,” Thomas says. “We believe this should be done in the Legislature, although we are taking steps to make a backup option.”

If the group collects the necessary 340,000-plus signatures by the end of May, the matter will go before lawmakers, and they’ll have 40 days to address the legislation. If they pass on it, then the proposal will land on the November ballot, and voters will decide its fate. 

Thomas says the group plans to keep lawmakers on both sides of the aisle updated on the initiative’s progress, and has requested meetings with legislative leaders — to no avail so far. 

While the Legislature is absolutely where this discussion needs to take place, there aren’t many hopeful signals coming from the Republican-controlled House or Senate. Both House Speaker Lee Chatfield, R-Levering, and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, have said this isn’t an issue high on their priority list. Their largest concerns center on the potential threat to religious liberty if LGBTQ protections are added.

Those concerns are justified. For instance, the Fair and Equal Michigan press release draws attention to how East Lansing in 1972 became the first city in the U.S. to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, arguing it's past time for the state to do the same.

Yet in 2017 the city used that ordinance to ban a Charlotte orchard owner from selling his goods at the East Lansing farmers market — simply because the Catholic farmer did not want to host same-sex weddings on his private property. The city now faces a federal lawsuit for violating the farmer’s First Amendment rights. 

There are many such examples around the country. 

LGBTQ activists and their supporters are frustrated with a lack of action in Michigan. But the best approach is to do this work in the Legislature.

Utah offers a good model. The conservative, Mormon state’s lawmakers and Republican governor in 2015 passed similar legislation, tied to protecting religious rights of institutions and individuals. 

If coalition members hope to engage GOP lawmakers, they’ll have to work toward that kind of compromise.