JEFFERSON CITY | Discrimination against gays and lesbians is not against the law in Missouri. A person can be fired from their job, evicted from their apartment or thrown out of a restaurant for being gay or being perceived to be gay.
A bill that would change that went before the Missouri House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday, and although supporters concede the legislation has little chance of passing this year, they contend just having the conversation is a good step forward.
“The more we talk about this and the more we educate people, the more friends we find,” said Rep. Mike Colona, a St. Louis Democrat and one of only three openly gay members of the Missouri General Assembly.
The bill, sponsored by Democratic Rep. Stephen Webber of Columbia, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in the Missouri Human Rights Act. Currently, people are protected from discrimination based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and age, among other categories.
“Most Missourians are stunned to find out that in the 21st Century that a worker who is competently doing their job can be fired simply for being gay,” said Webber, who has sponsored the legislation for three straight years. Similar legislation has been introduced every year since 2000.
The committee’s chairman, Republican Rep. Stanley Cox of Sedalia, questioned whether protections should be extended to people for a lifestyle many consider a personal choice. Webber countered that whether someone believes being gay is a choice shouldn’t matter, pointing out that religion is a protected class but is also a choice.
The bill would not impact religious organizations, Webber added, meaning they would not be forced to keep an employee whose lifestyle runs counter to the beliefs of the church.
Al Fischer, who earlier this year was fired from his job as a music teacher at St. Ann Catholic School in St. Louis County because he is gay, told the committee the current situation only serves to foster fear and paranoia.
“People across the state have been forced into adopting a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy out of fear their employers will find out about them,” he said, acknowledging the legislation would not have helped him keep his job since his employer was a religious organization.
The protections would not only benefit employees, Colona said, but also employers.
“I’ve had some of the biggest employers in the state come to me and say they are at a competitive disadvantage in hiring the top notch people in the country, because some of those top-notch people happen to be gay,” he said. “And since we have no protections, they are afraid they will come here and end up being fired for being gay."
But Rep. Kevin Elmer, a Republican from Nixa, wondered what impact adding another protected class could have on employers.
“Say you work in sales and you hire someone and then they decide they want to dress like a woman,” Elmer said. “Maybe people aren’t comfortable buying from that person, and it seems to me the employer couldn’t take any action against that person.”
Webber said the same argument could be made about race.
“Even in today’s society, some people may be less likely to buy a car from a woman or a black man,” Webber said. “We don’t use that as an excuse to leave some Missourians vulnerable.”
Opposing the legislation was Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network. He argued the change would open the door for fraudulent discrimination claims.
“How will you remedy all the people who have been handed a free way to say they’ve been discriminated against by falsely claiming something about their sexuality?” Messer asked. “Therein lies the real problem. I don’t know how we can get over that hurdle.”
Colona said any claim of discrimination would have to be proven to the Missouri Commission on Human Rights or the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Eventually, it could go before a judge and jury.
During that process, a person claiming discrimination would have to prove they are gay, just like any other protected class, he said.
Although he opposes the legislation, Messer said he could not defend anyone who fires an employee based on sexual orientation. And over time, he said he’s seen opinions on the issue begin to change.
“We’ve seen attitudes change, even within conservative churches,” he said. “People are coming to grips with the idea that we’re supposed to love all their neighbors, even those with a different sexual identity. Who knows where we'll be 10 years from now.”
The legislative session ends May 18.