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Michigan Elections Board Approves Formatting Of Gay Rights Petition

LANSING (AP) - Supporters of amending Michigan's constitution to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity cleared an initial procedural step Tuesday when the state elections board approved the format of their petition.

The Fair Michigan ballot committee now must gather roughly 315,000 valid voter signatures by summer to put the initiative on the November statewide ballot. But it must do so without the backing of major gay rights advocacy groups such as Equality Michigan and the American Civil Liberties Union. Those organizations oppose the 2016 measure because they worry voters will defeat it, and they want to focus on other approaches, including lobbying lawmakers for new legislation.

Chairing the committee are Dana Nessel, one of the lawyers who helped win a historic legal battle to strike down the state's gay marriage ban, and Republican attorney Richard McClellan.

"Making sure that everyone is treated fairly and we can prevent discrimination is a great thing," said Fair Michigan spokeswoman Sara Wurfel, who declined to say how much money the group has but said it intends to begin collecting signatures in January. "We think this has, actually, a path to win, and we're going to be doing everything we can to work with everyone to get there and make sure that can be the outcome. ... We are prepared to move forward."

The state constitution bars discrimination because of religion, race, color or national origin. The amendment would add gender, gender identity, sex and sexual orientation protections.

The GOP-controlled Legislature has blocked legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to a civil rights law, prohibiting discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents in employment, housing and places open to the public.

Equality Michigan supports continuing to lobby legislators for the next three or four years instead of pursuing the 2016 ballot measure, executive director Steph White said.

"The whole LGBT movement is pretty united on that path," she said. "None of the (poll) numbers I've seen indicated any hope for this to win."

The landslide defeat in November of a nondiscrimination ordinance in Houston has left LGBT-rights activists bracing for their opponents to seize on the successful tactic of stoking fears over transgender people's access to public restrooms. White said the LGBT community should not have to endure "hate speech" that would inevitably come during the failed ballot campaign, and advocates first need to better educate the public in order to push back against opponents' arguments.

Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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