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The next battle for gay rights in Michigan

Nov 2, 2015

One of the best days in Dana Nessel’s life  was Friday, June 26.

Four years earlier, two nurses came to her in despair. They were a committed, loving same-sex couple, who wanted to jointly adopt the three special needs children they had raised as foster parents.

But though the State of Michigan was happy with them as foster parents, it wouldn’t let them jointly adopt.

Nessel was cautioned by traditional liberal groups not to take this on, warned that a loss would set back same-sex rights for years, but she filed a federal lawsuit anyway.

The federal judge assigned to it suggested she challenge Michigan’s ban on same-sex marriage as well.

That was three years ago.

One thing led to another, until in June, the United States Supreme Court ruled same-sex marriage was a guaranteed constitutional right everywhere in this nation.

People were getting married and hiding it and some were worse off than before.

Nessel, the mother of 12-year-old twin boys, was elated. She and her dedicated legal team had fought this battle for four years; she wasn’t paid until after it was all over.

She herself soon married her partner, Alanna Maguire.

But her ecstasy turned to concern, even despair, when she began answering her phone.

She was deluged with calls from anguished people who told her that while they might have the freedom to marry, they could still be fired for being gay. Insurance companies claimed they could deny benefits to same-sex couples.

People were getting married and hiding it and some were worse off than before.

For years, civil rights groups had attempted to amend the state’s Elliott-Larsen Civil Rights Act to cover same-sex couples, but the Michigan Legislature is controlled by social conservatives who won’t do that.

Nessel wasn’t looking for another major cause right away, but life sometimes isn’t convenient.

She realized amending the Michigan Constitution was the only way to ensure fairness. She told me she went to groups you might expect would be eager to help, such as the ACLU and Equality Michigan, but they seemed to be afraid of losing.

Dana Nessel, once a tough, take-no-prisoners prosecutor, isn’t built that way, and she found an unexpected ally – Richard McLellan,  a powerful Republican attorney and a long-time Lansing power broker.

Together, they’ve founded Fair Michigan, a group determined to raise the money – maybe $1.5 million – needed to get this to the ballot.

To those in the know, their partnership is not all that shocking.

Failure to ensure equal protection may be worsening Michigan's "brain drain" ...

Though Republican religious fundamentalists make a lot of anti-gay noise, other members of the party, even conservatives like L. Brooks Patterson, want equal protection for sexual orientation and gender identity.

They know that progressive businesses are reluctant to expand in places without equal rights.  Failure to ensure equal protection may be worsening Michigan’s “brain drain” of young people graduating from college, and then moving to other states to build careers.

Republicans also know that the younger voters are, they more overwhelmingly they support full equality for those of all orientations and genders, and that a party which intransigently opposes this may be dooming itself.

This has a long way to go, but one thing is clear. If this does get on next year’s ballot, it may well spur record turnout in this state. That itself could make for an interesting outcome.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.