A Missouri House Committee has heard debate on legislation that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s Human Rights Statute’s definition of “discrimination.”

Representative Kevin Engler (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Kevin Engler (photo courtesy; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The proposal, HB 1930, would specify that the statute covers unfair treatment based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age as related to employment, disability or familial status as related to housing. It makes discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity an unlawful discriminatory practice.

The bill, HB 1930, is sponsored by Representative Kevin Engler (R-Farmington), who tells the committee discrimination still happens.

“If you don’t believe that, I’d ask the members when they’re on their spring break this next week, go and ask your friends, “Did you know that Missouri is one of a handful of states that still has it on the book that if you as an employee admit to being a homosexual, you can be fired for just cause. You can’t claim unemployment because it’s for just cause,” says Engler. “They will be shocked.”

Among those testifying against the legislation were the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries of Missouri.

Chamber General Counsel Jay Atkins tells the committee the Chamber has a number of members whose company policies include protections for the LGBT community and it encourages that to grow among its members.

“But there is a dramatic difference,” Atkins told the committee, “between having such policies as a matter of policy in the workplace, and creating an entire new cause of action that exposes all Missouri employers to further liability under employment law.”

Chamber board member and Governmental Affairs Director for Monsanto, Duane Simpson, says at the board’s last meeting, Chamber Vice President of Governmental Affairs Tracy King said the chamber has no official position on the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act. 

AIM President Ray McCarty echoed the concerns Atkins outlined about creating a new statutory protected class and the line of lawsuits that could come with it.

The Missouri Catholic Conference also testified against the legislation. General Counsel Tyler McClay told lawmakers his organization’s objection to the bill is not with how it would apply to housing or employment, but with how it deals with public accommodations.

“There needs to be space in the law,” McClay testified, “There needs to be space for people to say, ‘I can’t, as a matter of conscience, participate in a same-sex wedding ceremony, for example.”

Representative Stephen Webber (D-Columbia) calls McClay’s position “indefensible.”

“I think it’s pretty much impossible to pull out a legal argument that allows what you want to have happen without defending segregation,” Webber tells McClay. “I know you don’t want to support segregation … but your argument does.”

Appearing in favor of the bill were PROMO, the Missouri Attorney General’s Office and Monsanto.

Governor Jay Nixon (D) expressed support for nondiscrimination legislation in his State of the State Address in January, when he observed that such a bill was passed in the Senate in 2013 but didn’t reach his desk. 

Nixon said in his address, “Let’s get it done this year.”

Engler tells the committee he wants the language to become part of a larger bill dealing with multiple business issues.