Michigan LGBTQ rights initiative challenged by group with ties to anti-gay law firm

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Michigan Pride, June 15, 2019 | Susan J. Demas

A group called Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice filed a challenge with the Board of State Canvassers Thursday against the Fair and Equal Michigan campaign.

Fair and Equal Michigan, which aims to ban discrimination in jobs and housing for LGBTQ Michiganders by expanding Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act (ELCRA) to include sexual orientation and gender identity, filed nearly 500,000 signatures in October for the 2022 ballot. 

It’s unclear who is funding Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice, as campaign finance reports have not yet been filed. The group argues that Fair and Equal Michigan does not have enough valid signatures, and questions whether or not electronic signatures are valid. 

Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice hired Honigman Business Law Firm to represent the group.

In April, Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice filed with the Secretary of State for a ballot question. The address listed on the filing is for Kallman Legal Group and the Great Lakes Justice Center, a Lansing-based conservative legal group.

David Kallman has litigated several cases related to sexual orientation and gender identity protections, including suing the Williamston School District for adopting a nondiscrimination policy related to transgender students and suing Planet Fitness for allowing transgender women to use the women’s locker room. 

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Kallman also was the chief litigator in a Michigan Supreme Court ruling that allowed parents to homeschool their children without having a teaching certification. And he has represented a number of business owners, including the owner of Cafe Rosetta in Houghton County, fighting state pandemic health orders.

The Advance left a message with Kallman asking him to comment on the legal group’s connection with the petition challenge.

Fair and Equal Michigan attorney Steve Liedel says that electronically gathering signatures is allowed under the Electronic Transactions Act of 2000, which states that “that a signature shall not be denied legal effect or enforceability solely because it is an electronic form.”

“I think it’s interesting that the challenge doesn’t cite any legal authority and Fair and Equal Michigan is going to rely on the plain language of the law to make the case that those signatures are valid signatures under Michigan law. There’s nothing in the election law that says the signatures cannot be affixed digitally,” Liedel said. 

Another argument brought forth in the challenge is actually not about Fair and Equal Michigan, but rather it is about Unlock Michigan, a GOP-linked campaign to permanently repeal the 1945 law that granted emergency powers to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Attorney General Dana Nessel investigated Unlock Michigan for invalid signature gathering, finding insufficient evidence of malicious wrongdoing by the group but detailing unethical behavior by several individuals who were paid to collect signatures for the group.

Nessel did not criminally charge anyone following the investigation due to the lack of admissible evidence. 

However, because some of the same circulators for Unlock Michigan also collected signatures for Fair and Equal Michigan, Citizens for Equality, Fairness and Justice is arguing that all signatures from those canvassers should be invalidated.

“I think about 90% or more of the complaint seems to raise issues with Unlock Michigan, and there was no evidence whatsoever with regard to any improper conduct by Fair and Equal Michigan,” Liedel said. 

Liedel said Fair and Equal Michigan will be asking the Bureau of Elections and the Board of State canvassers to ignore anything in the complaint that has to do with Unlock Michigan. 

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Josh Hovey, spokesperson for Fair and Equal Michigan, said the challenge didn’t come as a surprise.

“I would say the name of the organization … is pretty Orwellian and it’s disappointing that they would try to use a name like that when they’re actively trying to keep an equality initiative off the ballot,” Hovey said. “But it’s not surprising that we were being challenged. That’s pretty typical. All the other challenges campaigns face between the global pandemic and all of that is just one more hurdle that our path towards equality.”

Fair and Equal Michigan formed in January with the intention of getting a measure on the Nov. 3 ballot, but was stunted by the challenges caused by the pandemic, such as gathering signatures.

Once the coalition fell short for the 2020 election, it readjusted for the 2022 ballot and submitted 483,461 signatures, exceeding the 340,047 valid signatures required.

Allison R. Donahue covers education, women's issues and LGBTQ issues. Previously, she was a suburbs reporter at the St. Cloud Times in St. Cloud, Minn., covering local education and government. As a graduate of Grand Valley State University, she has previous experience as a freelance researcher for USA Today and an intern with WOOD TV-8. When she is away from her desk, she spends her time going to concerts, comedy shows or getting lost on hikes in different places around the world.