Michigan Advocates Eye LGBTQ Rights Referendum

Jim Fitterling, the out gay CEO of MIchigan-based Dow, is among the business leaders supporting the drive to amend the state’s civil rights law to protect LGBTQ residents through a voter referendum.
DAN DENARDO/ DOW

An LGBTQ rights coalition in Michigan has launched a statewide campaign to enact comprehensive nondiscrimination protections for the queer community — most likely through a voter referendum in November. The effort is aimed at adding sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes under the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act of 1976.

Since 2018, the Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission, interpreting sexual orientation and gender identity discrimination as forms of prohibited sex discrimination, has enforced LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. The last year, when Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer took office, she signed an executive order banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in government employment and by contractors doing business with the state of Michigan. The Fair and Equal Campaign wants to codify the Civil Rights Commission’s protections explicitly in state law.

Josh Hovey, a spokesperson for the Fair and Equal Campaign, which is a coalition of LGBTQ groups, business leaders, and others Michiganders, said it would be preferable to have the State Legislature pass nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people — and he emphasized that advocates would try mightily to convince lawmakers to do so. But the campaign anticipates roadblocks in the GOP-controlled State Senate and advocates generally agree that it likely will be easier to go directly to the voters to win the nondiscrimination protections.

“After waiting 37 years, this effort gives the Legislature eight additional months to pass these basic human rights,” Trevor Thomas, who serves as the co-chair and president of Fair and Equal Michigan, said in a written statement. “If they can’t get the job done, our Constitution affords Michiganders the right to vote to ensure that workers are judged on the job they do, not who they are or who they love.”

The Fair and Equal Campaign is confident that voters would be receptive to a referendum — and that confidence is backed up by statistics. A non-partisan pollster in Michigan, Richard Czuba, recently carried out a statewide survey of 600 register voters and found that 77.5 percent of likely 2020 voters support amending the state’s civil rights law to include LGBTQ nondiscrimination protections. And when respondents were asked directly whether they would vote for such a measure in a statewide referendum, 77 percent — including 75 percent of GOP voters — said they would indeed.

Everyday voters aren’t the only ones expressing support for the effort. The campaign has attracted bipartisan support from Republicans like former state legislator and Michigan GOP chair Melvin L. Larsen, as well as key out gay business leaders such as Apple CEO Tim Cook and Michigan-based Dow CEO Jim Fitterling.

“For Michigan to continue to compete and win globally, and for Dow to continue to innovate in the state, we must be able to recruit and retain the best talent,” Fitterling said in a written statement. “A fully inclusive community for everyone that lives in Michigan is imperative for all of us to continue effectively doing business in our great state.”

Advocates officially kicked off the ballot initiative by submitting a petition to the Board of State Canvassers. Once that board approves the petition language, Fair and Equal Michigan must gather and submit signatures of at least 340,047 voters in the state by May 27 of this year. The Michigan Legislature will then have 40 days to adopt the amendment. If the amendment is rejected or ignored, Michigan voters in would decide the issue in the general election on November 3.

The MIchigan State Capitol, where Republican resistance in the State Senate is expected to block any effort to provide LGBTQ rights protections through the legislative route.
NIKOPOLEY/ WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

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