Government & Politics

Push for LGBT rights in Missouri clears hurdle — but unlikely to become law this year

Cheers erupted from a House hearing room Wednesday night as those gathered witnessed a historic milestone for LGBT rights in Missouri.

Outside, shouts of profanity echoed down the hall.

For the first time since it was first introduced in 1998, a bill providing discrimination protections for LGBT Missourians passed out of a Missouri House committee. But in what some called an act of procedural chicanery, the vote was taken before some Republican committee members had arrived at the meeting.

“This is crap,” Rep. Gary Cross, R-Lee’s Summit, shouted as he arrived outside the hearing room after the vote. “This is an injustice. Shame on those people.”

The House General Laws committee voted 6-0 to approve legislation sponsored by the only openly gay members of the Missouri legislature — Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, and Rep. Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles — that would give LGBT Missourians a means of recourse when facing discrimination.

It’s nearly impossible for the bill to become law before the legislative session ends at 6 p.m. Friday, but proponents are celebrating the first-ever committee vote on the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act as historic.

Yet even that modest progress required a herculean effort behind the scenes, offering an insight into just how far LGBT advocates still have to go in the Missouri General Assembly.

“It's been a long hard fight,” Razer said after the vote. “But this is one step to get it through a long, hard process. We have two days to try to move it onto the House floor. ... And now we've set the precedent that this is a bill that gets through committee.”

Although a U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalized gay marriage in 2015, LGBT Missourians can still be legally fired from their job, denied housing or kicked out of a restaurant for being gay or transgender — or even being perceived as gay or transgender.

Razer and Hannegan’s bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination laws, alongside protected classes including race, gender, religion and age. There is no federal law protecting LGBT people from discrimination.

During a committee hearing last week, Hannegan said House leadership had made a promise to Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington — who sponsored a version of the bill in the past — that it would reach the floor.

During a May 8, 2017, debate, Engler announced that he was voting against a MONA amendment to a separate bill because “I’ve gotten assurances from the speaker and the floor leader that this bill is going to be heard as soon as possible next year.”

Engler said in an interview Wednesday that the chances of the House voting “yes” on MONA this year are slim.

Razer confirmed that leadership pledged last year that the bill would get out of committee and onto the floor. Razer said he and Hannegan made concessions and agreed to narrower definitions for sexual orientation, gender identity and discrimination in response to Republican lawmakers' concerns.

It’s “embarrassing for Missouri” that the state has failed to protect LGBT Missourians, Razer said Wednesday.

“We've lived up to our end of the deal,” he said. “This is a place where your word is your bond, and if I can't trust your word, then I have a hard time trusting anything. I held up to my end of the bargain. They have two and a half days. We'll see if they can get it to the floor.”

The bill moved a step closer to fulfilling that promise Wednesday night when supporters quickly voted the bill out of committee before many of the bill’s GOP opponents could even arrive.

Rep. Nick Schroer, R-O’Fallon, who had expressed issues with the bill’s language in the past, said he was just coming down the elevator when he found out the vote had already occurred. After the vote he said he had no comment “because I don't know what happened. We're still trying to figure it out."

“It's very frustrating,” said Rep. Jered Taylor, R-Nixa. "I texted the chairman to let him know I was coming down to the committee. I wanted to have the opportunity to speak on it — my thoughts and possible amendments on there. Proper procedure was ignored."

The meeting was scheduled for “immediately upon adjournment” of Wednesday’s House proceedings.

House Minority Leader Rep. Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City, doesn’t serve on the committee but was present to give it a quorum — which allowed a vote. The only two GOP members present to vote were committee Chair Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, and Rep. Jean Evans, R-Manchester.

Razer denied the claims that proper procedure had been cast aside.

“We do those meetings all the time. Everybody knew that this was going on,” Razer said of the vote. “Everybody in this building knows, immediately upon adjournment means immediately upon adjournment.”

LGBT Missourians and allies urged lawmakers last week to protect them from discrimination under state law.

Peter Seay, a business owner from St. Louis, said his first interaction with a transgender person came within his own family.

“I'm a conservative, father and business owner here in our state. Three years ago we found out our oldest child was not going to conform with the gender assigned at birth. This created great concern in our own family,” Seay said. “I want my child to see this state the same way I do. As a home. A place to start businesses. A place to contribute. And I want them to see that they have a place here that is acceptable to them.”

Cathy Serino, a transgender veteran from Jefferson City, said over the past eight years, she’s experienced discrimination in every aspect of her life “more times than (she) can count.”

“As a transgender person, we're not looking for anything extra,” Serino said. “We just want to be treated the same as everybody else. No less. No more.”

The bill was supported by groups including PROMO Missouri, AARP, Monsanto, the Missouri National Education Association, Greater Kansas City Chamber City of Commerce and the ACLU of Missouri.

Opponents expressed concerns with the bill’s language and protections for religious freedom.

Schroer said he worried some language was too broad, such as who would determine what “unfair treatment” would be considered discrimination.

“If I could wave a perfect wand and get discrimination out of the workforce in all of these situations, I would,” Schroer said. “But as a general counsel of several small businesses across this state, I do have a vested interest in making sure that this isn't going to promote in any way frivolous lawsuits.”

Ray McCarty, president of Associated Industries of Missouri, said his group was against any law that could bring a new wave of lawsuits against employers. McCarty had no statistics from other states citing an increase in lawsuits after passing similar laws.

Although the majority of testimony heard was in support of the bill, it’s unlikely the measure will become law with the end of the session just a few days away. Both Razer and Hannegan’s bills were filed early in the session, yet weren’t assigned to a House committee until last week.

“We know where history's going to lead us on this. Eventually the state's going to do the right thing, and we're going to keep pressing until we force the state to do the right thing, which is to protect all Missourians against discrimination,” Razer said. “That's not likely this year, but I'm not going to stop fighting until we hit 6 o'clock Friday.”