A citizen-led campaign is underway that seeks to initiate legislation that would expand the Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act and ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity or expression across Michigan. Twenty-one states already provide such protections.
Created by a group called Fair and Equal Michigan, it has received support from activists, nonprofit organizations and business leaders around the state, listing people like Jerry Norcia, president and CEO of DTE Energy, Lansing Mayor Andy Schor and LGBTQ Activist Jim Toy as members of its Honorary Leadership Committee. If the petition receives 340,047 valid voter signatures by May 27, the proposed legislation could end up being adopted by the Legislature. If not, it would appear on the Nov. 3 ballot.
This legislation would "extend the [Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights] Act's prohibitions on discriminatory practices, policies and customs in the exercise of civil rights to prohibit discrimination based upon (1) sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression, or (2) the religious beliefs of an individual, by defining 'sex' to include gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity or expression, and 'religion' as including the religious beliefs of an individual."
Adding "religious beliefs" to the language of the ballot initiative should not be confused with inserting a religious exemption. "Religion" is already a protected class in the civil rights act; for example, Jewish people are protected from anti-Semitism. Trevor Thomas, president and co-chair of Fair and Equal Michigan noted that nowhere in ELCRA is there a definition of "religion" and they felt it was important to provide one. The Michigan Constitution defines "religion" as "the religious beliefs of an individual," so that seemed the appropriate option.
"We are simply making sure to avoid any confusion in the future a definition of religion within the civil rights act," Thomas explained. "I think it's really important for all parties, actually. We have members of the faith community on our honorary leadership committee and we have members who are agnostic."
What not everyone realizes is that ELCRA already provides for a religious exemption: it applies to religious, educational and other private institutions. For example, women are not permitted certain leadership roles in some religious organizations, and that is permissible under this provision.
"It's pretty limited in scope," Thomas said.
Response from Community Leaders
"In Michigan, we have continued to work at this for 37 years, since Rep. Jim Dressel first introduced a bill that would … recognize LGBTQ people for the first time in the [Elliott-Larsen] civil rights act here in Michigan," said Thomas, who is also board chair for the statewide Equality Michigan Action LGBTQ advocacy group. "The Legislature has continued to not take action. And so, I think what inspires me is over those 37 years, people have been able to share their stories in a way that many people in the state can now say they know someone who is LGBTQ. And that has resulted in an extraordinary swing in public opinion where more than 77 percent … support getting this through the Legislature, and if not, having a vote of the people to settle it once and for all."
Fair and Equal Michigan co-chair Alanna Maguire added that they are confident it will pass. Maguire is also President of Fair Michigan, an organization dedicated to advocacy for the LGBTQ community.
"I'm proud to co-chair this effort that is led by so many prominent businesses, community leaders, civil rights organizations and individuals dedicated to equal justice for all," Maguire said via email.
"It's also good for the Michigan economy," said Michael Rowady, Equality Michigan Board Chair. "One of the reasons we're experiencing brain drain in Michigan and why young people are leaving is they don't feel safe here. The environment here is not one favoring diversity. And you don't have to be a gay person to experience that. You could have friends or family … and [feel], 'You know what, I don't want to be here if we don't have those types of protections.'"
Erin Knott, executive director of Equality Michigan, is a member of Fair and Equal Michigan's honorary leadership committee. She concurred as to the necessity for amending ELCRA for the reasons cited above. On behalf of Equality Michigan, she had this to say:
"I think the group of individual citizens that came together are tired of the logjam. So perhaps modeled on what we saw in 2018, with the gerrymandering ballot initiative, folks felt enough's enough. Take it to the voters. There hasn't been an appetite in the Legislature to advance this work.
"As an honorary committee member, I have participated in discussions about the strategy. I will be at the table, but again, I represent Equality Michigan and we remain laser-focused on working with pro-equality friends within the Legislature to hopefully find a path forward to amend ELCRA," she continued. "And if that doesn't present itself, then we will definitely be working with Fair and Equal Michigan on the signature collection, and then ultimately a public education campaign so that voters have an opportunity to decide on this in November 2020."
The legislative strategy supported by Equality Michigan and others — like The Human Rights Campaign — is currently led by Sen. Jeremy Moss (D-Southfield) and Rep. Jon Hoadley (D-Kalamazoo). The two lawmakers issued a statement regarding HB 4688 and SB 351. Rep. Hoadley addressed the need to amend ELCRA, then concluded with the remarks, "The Legislature has everything it needs to act immediately to prohibit anti-LGBTQ discrimination, except for the willingness of the majority party. We need to fix that in 2020."
Sen. Moss expressed his frustration with the Legislature as well, adding, "Today's announcement of a prospective ballot proposal also serves to renew our call for the Legislature to move swiftly to pass the bills we sponsored because Michigan residents are fed up with inaction."
Support and Concern
For his part, Dave Garcia, executive director of Affirmations in Ferndale, said he and the community center were on board with the effort.
"Affirmations supports the initiative," Garcia said. "We will try as best we can to engage our volunteers to help in whatever way is best, including perhaps gathering signatures. I've reached out to Trevor Thomas and … we're willing to help with our volunteers and we're willing to help get the word out, and we're willing to give you space if you need campaign space in Southeast Michigan. [However,] I want to make it clear we will only support this initiative so long as there is no religious exemption."
There is indeed reason for concern regarding religious exemptions. Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey and Speaker of the House Lee Chatfield are on the record with their adamant opposition to expanding LGBTQ rights, most notably Shirkey in his sponsorship of a statewide Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Chatfield has stated that pro-equality legislation amounts to reverse discrimination. Both are term-limited.
Further, some have questioned the possibility that once the signatures are collected, Michigan could see a repeat of the fate suffered by the minimum wage and paid sick time ballot initiatives of 2018. Following signature collection, the Legislature adopted those measures and they were signed into law, then lawmakers wrote their own legislation that in effect undid or "gutted" the original proposals. That possibility is highly unlikely for the simple fact that Michigan now has a governor who supports LGBTQ rights and would not sign legislation unfavorable to the LGBTQ community if it came across her desk.
There exists one other possibility that Thomas shared for the sake of transparency, but suggested is highly unlikely. The Michigan Constitution allows for the state Legislature to propose their own citizens' initiatives, with a majority vote in both chambers. Therefore, at any time in this effort's process, it is within lawmakers' power to propose their own initiative that could counter Fair and Equal Michigan's.
After the verified signatures are submitted, the Legislature has 40 days to simply adopt the initiative as-is, or it will be decided on by the voters. But, at any time from now until eight months after the signatures are collected, they may decide to take up the existing, languishing bills before the election.
"We hope we don't have to go to the ballot," Thomas said. "Lee [Chatfield] and Mike [Shirkey] can do the right thing."
Call to Action
Roland Leggett, chair of the LGBT & Allies Caucus of the Michigan Democratic Party, stressed the importance for the LGBTQ community to come together to amend ELCRA — by whatever method it takes.
"I think any time we're able to tackle it in a robust way is a good thing. And I commend the folks around the table that are bringing it to the forefront and making it an issue this election cycle. We definitely need to make this a top priority with the candidates and officials that we as a community support."
He said he would be talking to the organizers of Fair and Equal Michigan about speaking with caucus members regarding how they can get involved. Then Leggett made a final call to rally the LGBTQ community at large.
"I'd encourage folks when they are thinking about this issue, which we know is incredibly important, to focus on direct action. Collect ballot signatures. Donate money. When you have conversations with family members, talk to them about how important this issue is," he said. "When you're in the community and you meet folks that are running for office or thinking about it, let them know this issue is a top priority for you. I just really want to encourage folks to get involved. Any reservations that folks might have, we're here now. Let's do all we can to support the folks in our community that are most vulnerable. They're counting on us to get this done. Let's just do it."