James Pittman believes he was fired for being gay. So he sued his former employer for discrimination.
Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals in Jackson County dismissed the case this week because Missouri law doesn’t prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation.
“No matter how compelling Pittman’s argument may be and no matter how sympathetic this court or the trial court may be to Pittman’s situation, we are bound by the state of the law as it currently exists,” Chief Judge James Welch wrote in dismissing the case.
Discrimination based on age, race, religion or gender is against the law in Missouri.
Those protections don’t extend to lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals. That means a person can legally be fired from a job, evicted from an apartment or kicked out of a restaurant for being gay or simply being perceived to be gay.
The court’s decision is expected to reignite debate over the issue in the General Assembly, where efforts to amend the law have stalled for more than a decade.
But the issue probably will make its way into the 2016 Missouri governor campaign, where five Republicans and one Democrat are vying to replace term-limited Jay Nixon.
“This ruling makes it clear that the time has come for Missouri to pass a new nondiscrimination act to ensure the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community is afforded the same protections as all other Missourians,” said Attorney General Chris Koster, the only Democrat currently running for governor.
The front-runner for the Republican nomination, Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, said “every person deserves to be judged on their merits and I am against discrimination for any reason.”
The larger problem, Kinder said, is a “ broken employment law system” that benefits “trial attorneys who pursue meritless litigation.”
The four other Republican candidates for governor did not respond to requests for comment.
Opponents worry that adding new discrimination protections will force religious businesses and individuals to violate their faith. And while corporate America has largely embraced gay rights, some business groups continue to raise concerns that creating more protected classes could lead to a deluge of litigation.
The closest gay rights supporters have come to changing the law was 2013. The Missouri Senate passed a bill that year adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in the Missouri Human Rights Act with bipartisan support from 10 Democrat and nine Republicans, including current GOP lieutenant governor candidate Mike Parson.
Three Republicans running for statewide office next year — gubernatorial hopeful Bob Dixon, attorney general candidate Kurt Schaefer and treasurer candidate Eric Schmitt — skipped the 2013 vote on the gay rights legislation, even though each cast votes that day before and after the bill was passed.
Republican secretary of state candidate Will Kraus joined 10 other Republicans in voting against the legislation.
The bill ultimately ended up dying that year when the House refused to take it up for a vote in the final minutes of the legislative session.
While progress has stalled at the state level, more than a dozen cities and counties in Missouri — including Kansas City and Jackson County — have passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Pittman, who alleges that he endured years of harassment before he was fired, plans to appeal his lawsuit’s dismissal to the Missouri Supreme Court.