The sponsor of a bill in the state legislature which would modify the Missouri Human Rights Act says the proposal’s language will change.
In its current form, Senate Bill (SB) 1022 from Republican Senator Bob Dixon of Springfield would seem to revisit a controversial and divisive measure put forth in 2016. Senate Joint Resolution (SJR) 39 would have let voters decide if those with sincere religious beliefs could deny wedding services for gay couples.
After a marathon filibuster in the Senate which eventually passed the measure, it died in a House committee after an emotional debate. Dixon, who voted in favor of the resolution in 2016, now says his proposal won’t allow for mass refusal of services.
“Where the bill is not going to go is down the road of a business saying ‘Well, we’re not going to rent chairs to that wedding because we disagree with that’,” said Dixon. ” I won’t have any part of that.”
A number of conservative-leaning states were looking at measures allowing businesses to opt out of serving gay unions in 2015 and 2016 as gay marriage had just been cleared by the U.S. Supreme Court. Like in other states, the legislation stirred objections from major businesses and sports operations in Missouri.
Dixon says his intention now is to bring stakeholders and interested parties on both sides of the issue to the table to find common ground.
He’s held the first of what he says will be numerous meetings in Jefferson City with the intention of bridging a great divide between religious freedom and LGBT rights.
Groups attending the initial conference included the American Civil Liberties Union, the 1st Amendment Partnership – an association that bills itself as “faiths united for religious freedom” and PROMO – a Missouri based LGBT rights organization.
Dixon admits not all the stakeholders contacted were able to make it to the first meeting, but he’s hopeful more will participate in future gatherings. PROMO Executive Director Steph Perkins is pleased that there’s dialogue among the various parties, although he finds the current bill highly objectionable.
“It has significant challenges and could potentially do a lot of harm to LGBT Missourians,” said Perkins. “But I really enjoy the conversations that we’re having with religious folks, with other organizations, with Senator Dixon to see where we can end up in the future.”
The bill as presently drawn up does offer some protections for the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community.
It would prohibit discrimination based upon a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity and would allow cities to adopt ordinances prohibiting discrimination in employment, housing, or public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation or gender.
The city of Springfield, where both Perkins and Dixon reside, once included gay and lesbian people in its non-discrimination ordinance. But voters repealed that portion of the law by a narrow margin in 2015.
Dixon himself has personal experience with gay issues. During his short run as a Republican candidate for governor, also in 2015, he announced that he’d lived for a few years as a gay man until he had a religious conversion, which encouraged him to marry a woman.
When asked about the Springfield vote to rescind gay/lesbian protections at the time, Dixon said such a law wasn’t necessary because people would respect each other out of the goodness of their hearts. He now believes discrimination laws need to cover the LGBT community.
“I think that this is the time to do it,” Dixon said. “Politically, I believe it’s the opportunity of a generation. And I think people do need to have protections so that they’re not fired from jobs or denied housing.”
The bill in its current state includes other provisions that won’t sit well with organizations such as PROMO.
It would bar cities and counties from penalizing individuals and entities that believe marriage should only be between a man and a woman and would also free corporations and associations that are owned or operated by religious organizations from having to comply with the Human Rights Act.
The bill would further allow religious organizations or their non-profit operations to deny the sale or rental of houses or apartments based on sex, sexual orientation or sexual identity.
With Dixon planning to conduct more meetings and overhaul the legislation, a hearing on it that was set for Tuesday, March 27th has been canceled.
PROMO’s Perkins admits that bridging the gap between LGBT and religious factions is a tall mountain to climb, but thinks the ongoing conversation is worthwhile.
“We look at this work as long-term work that comes from building relationships, changing hearts and minds and really getting people to understand the true experiences of LGBT people here in our state,” Perkins said. “And we can only do that by starting at the bottom of a mountain sometimes.”
Dixon believes bridging the divide between the two worlds is highly important, even if nothing’s finalized this session.
“If we don’t have freedom for everyone, then we really have freedom for no one. If we don’t respect the dignity and the humanity of everyone, then we don’t really respect our own.”
Dixon won’t have a direct role in any legislation beyond the current session as he will be termed out after 16 years in the General Assembly.