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Judge gives time to LGBT rights drive, won't cut signatures

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Posted at 8:20 AM, Jun 11, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-11 15:30:36-04

LANSING, Mich. (WXYZ) — A Michigan judge on Wednesday gave an LGBT rights ballot drive more time to collect signatures due to coronavirus stay-at-home restrictions but refused the group's request to slash the number of signatures needed to make the ballot.

The ruling from Court of Claims Judge Cynthia Stephens means a 69-day period — the length of stay-at-home orders that were in effect from March 24 to June 1 — will not count as part of a 180-day window in which Fair and Equal Michigan's petitions must be gathered. The decision will help the group's efforts to now qualify for the 2022 ballot rather than the 2020 election.

Stephens noted that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued orders pausing deadlines for such activities as driver's license renewals. Tolling the signature expiration for ballot questions “is no less burdensome or fraught with peril to the public,” she wrote.

Stephens, however, rejected a plea by the group and two Democratic lawmakers to reduce the 340,000-signature requirement to 127,000 and to delay a requirement that petitions be submitted at 160 days before the election.

She said delegates who wrote the 1963 state constitution “intended that it be difficult to invoke the initiative process, and this intent acknowledged the notion that many proposed initiatives would not make the ballot.”

The ballot committee's proposal would change Michigan's civil rights law to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. Religion-based discrimination, which already is barred, would be defined to include an individual’s “religious beliefs.”

Fair and Equal Michigan began circulating petitions on Feb. 3, with a focus on making this November's statewide ballot. It said it now has until Oct. 9 to finish collecting signatures. If the group gets enough, the initiated bill would go to lawmakers and — because the Republican-led Legislature likely would not act — to a public vote in November 2022.

Fair and Equal Michigan had nearly 178,000 signatures as of May 24, with roughly 135,000 projected to be valid — nearly 40% of the 340,047 required.

Co-chairman Trevor Thomas said the judge recognized that COVID-19 “impacted the fundamental constitutional rights of our nearly 200,000 supporters. ... The order today is consistent with what we always set out to do: apply much-needed focus on the Legislature to pass the first-ever LGBTQ rights bill or citizens will do it for you.”