Michigan LGBT rights ballot drive officially dead after appeal denied

CARDIFF, WALES - AUGUST 24: A LGBT rainbow flag during Pride Cymru 2019 on August 24, 2019 in Cardiff, Wales. Pride Cymru aims to eliminate discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender and promote LGBT+ equality and diversity within Wales. (Photo by Matthew Horwood/Getty Images) (Matthew Horwood, 2019 Matthew Horwood)

LANSING, Mich. – The Michigan Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to hear the appeal of an LGBTQ-rights ballot committee that contended officials wrongly disqualified tens thousands of voter signatures it submitted for an initiative to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

The decision, issued in a short order, came months after the Board of State Canvassers declined to certify the petitions. Election officials had determined Fair and Equal Michigan had about 263,000 valid signatures, roughly 76,000 short.

The proposal would have revised the state’s 1976 civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Organizers wanted to place the measure before the Republican-led Legislature, where similar legislation has long stalled. If lawmakers did not act, it would have gone to a statewide vote in November 2022.

“While we are disappointed that the court won’t act to recognize legally-valid signatures thrown out by the state, it’s clear the best opportunity to achieve LGBTQ equal rights in Michigan is to place full focus on Attorney General Dana Nessel’s historic case currently before the Michigan Supreme Court,” Fair and Equal Michigan Co-Chair Trevor Thomas said in a statement.

The court previously agreed to consider whether Michigan's existing ban against sex discrimination covers sexual orientation and gender identity. The lawsuit was filed by Rouch World, a Sturgis-based wedding venue and park, and Marquette-based Uprooted Electrolysis after they refused services to a same-sex couple and a transgender woman who subsequently filed complaints with the state Department of Civil Rights.

The companies sued before the agency issued its findings.

In 2018, the department began processing complaints of discrimination against LGBT people after the state Civil Rights Commission issued an interpretive statement. It said that discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity is a form of sexual discrimination outlawed under Michigan law.

A Court of Claims judge last December agreed that gender identity discrimination is sexual discrimination but ruled the opposite for sexual orientation discrimination, saying he was bound by a 1993 state appeals court decision. The state Supreme Court will consider whether the state's current law protects against sexual orientation discrimination.

"It’s long past time for our state to recognize sexual orientation as protected from discrimination under the law,” Nessel, a Democrat, said last week after her office filed a brief in the case.

Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a federal civil rights law protects gay, lesbian and transgender people from discrimination in employment. Supporters of the Michigan measure have said it would protect against discrimination in housing and public accommodations and provide broader employment protections than federal law provides.


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