Government & Politics

LGBT advocates in Missouri expect to play defense in upcoming legislative session

Gay rights supporters fear they will be playing defense for much of 2017 to make sure the Missouri General Assembly doesn’t roll back civil rights. In March, Mathew Mauldin joined a rally outside the Missouri Capitol.
Gay rights supporters fear they will be playing defense for much of 2017 to make sure the Missouri General Assembly doesn’t roll back civil rights. In March, Mathew Mauldin joined a rally outside the Missouri Capitol. The Associated Press

When the verdict came in last year in James Pittman’s discrimination lawsuit, few were surprised by the outcome.

Pittman had sued his former employer, saying he was fired because he was gay. His ex-boss vehemently denied the accusation.

In the end, it didn’t matter either way.

Discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals isn’t against the law in Missouri. 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 Western District Court of Appeals expressed sympathy for Pittman, but his case was dismissed.

LGBT advocates have been trying for more than a decade to persuade Missouri lawmakers to include sexuality and gender identity in the state’s discrimination law. They’ll continue those efforts, but they concede that 2017 will be about playing defense and staving off bills they think would roll back their civil rights.

One point may be in their favor: It’s not clear if legislative leaders have much of an appetite to tackle these issues in a year when they already have a jam-packed agenda.

“We’re trying to be ready for anything,” said Steph Perkins, executive director of PROMO, the state’s largest LGBT advocacy organization. “We just try to be as prepared as we can be.”

The highest-profile issue could very well be a return of something similar to Senate Joint Resolution 39, which would have amended the state’s constitution to protect certain businesses owners who cite religious beliefs to refuse service to same-sex couples.

In March, Democrats staged a 39-hour filibuster to try to kill the measure in the Senate. GOP leaders used a procedural maneuver to force it to the House, where it ran into even more intense opposition from the state’s business community.

The measure ultimately died when it fell one vote short of getting out of a House committee.

Assistant Senate Majority Leader Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican, was the sponsor of SJR39 and one of its most outspoken proponents. He says that because the Senate did all the heavy lifting on the issue last year, it will be up to the House to push it forward in 2017.

That could mean it won’t get much traction.

House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, said that while he wants to ensure that Missouri is a place where “religious freedom is protected,” the focus of the House agenda in 2017 will be on “economic issues we’ve been talking about,” most notably changes to labor law, the legal system and business regulations.

Dan Mehan, president and CEO of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, agreed.

“I think we’ve moved on from” SJR39, he said, “but you never know.”

Bathroom bills

The other issue percolating in the statehouse is an effort to limit restroom access for transgender Missourians.

As LGBT advocates have pushed to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity across the country, opponents increasingly have tried to thwart those efforts by stoking fears surrounding bathroom access.

In 2014, for example, the Springfield City Council passed a nondiscrimination ordinance. Evangelical groups worked quickly on a petition that placed a repeal of the ordinance on the ballot.

The repeal campaign was focused on the idea that providing discrimination protections to transgender Missourians would protect cross-dressing sexual predators who wished to lurk in women’s restrooms.

Proponents were outraged at the strategy, saying it was not only a lie but blatant fear-mongering. But in the end it worked, and the ordinance was overturned.

A Senate bill filed this month would mandate that students in public schools can only use the restrooms, locker room and showers that match their gender, as determined “by a person’s chromosomes, and ... identified at birth by a person’s anatomy and indicated on their birth certificate.”

A House bill would require that all public restrooms, other than single-occupancy restrooms, be gender-divided.

But once again, whether there is an appetite among legislative leaders for the issue isn’t clear.

Incoming House Speaker Pro Tem Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican, thinks a changing of the guard in the White House takes much of the urgency out of the restroom issue.

The Obama administration had made its position clear: Transgender students should be allowed to use facilities that correspond with their gender identity. Vice President-elect Mike Pence recently told the Christian Post that he and President-elect Donald Trump think the issue should be resolved at the local level.

Ultimately it all may end up being resolved by the U.S. Supreme Court, which took a case in October of a transgender boy who wishes to use the boys restroom in a Virginia high school.

“I don’t think there will be a huge legislative push for something like that,” Haahr said of bathroom bills. “That would be my inclination.”

While forced to play defense this year, Perkins of PROMO notes that just three years ago, a bipartisan group of senators signed off on including sexual orientation and gender identity in Missouri’s discrimination laws. If the House had agreed to take it up, it would have become law, Perkins said.

Since then, however, the issue hasn’t made much progress, thanks in part to pushback over the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last year to legalize same-sex marriage.

“I am still very hopeful that we’ll get there,” Perkins said. “Progress can be slow, but we’ll get there.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock