On the eve of his first legislative session as governor, Mike Parson said he’s open to the idea of extending discrimination protections to LGBT Missourians, though he hedged on what role government has in the debate.
Parson, a Republican from Bolivar who took over as governor in June after Eric Greitens resigned, laid out his top priorities for the 2019 legislative session in an interview on Monday with The Star.
He said his focus will remain on issues he’s championed during his short stint as governor: infrastructure improvements and workforce development.
But when asked about the chances for legislation he has previously voted in favor of that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Parson said he is ready to have a conversation.
“Do I think people should be discriminated on in the workforce? No I don’t. I never have felt that way,” Parson told The Star. “Even when it’s things I don’t believe in, and I’ve tried to make that apparent. My views are different than some, but at the end of the day, if somebody’s working and they’re a good worker, then I don’t think they should be discriminated against.”
In 2013, when he was a still a state senator, Parson was one of nine Republicans who joined with Democrats in the final moments of the legislative session to approve the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act.
That bill would have added sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in the Missouri Human Rights Act, alongside race, gender, religion and age.
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.
The bill Parson supported in 2013 ultimately died in the House. It has never come anywhere near passing in subsequent years.
Since that vote, Parson has occasionally expressed concerns about changing the state’s discrimination laws because he feared it could infringe on the religious rights of Christians.
He reiterated those concerns Monday, saying that while no one should be discriminated against because of their sexual orientation, “I don’t want other people to be discriminated (against) either because they believe a different way.”
“I just know where my beliefs are as a Christian,” Parson said. “That’s where I am. But everybody doesn’t have to agree with me on that. And I mean, there have been plenty of people that I would consider my friends that don’t agree with me on that.”
He’s open to discussing changes to discrimination laws in Missouri, Parson said, but there has been progress on the issue over the years without government intervention.
“Government’s role is maybe to stay more out of it than they are to get involved with it,” he said, later adding: “I think progress has been done without government. So what is government’s role? That would be the question.”
Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, is one of only two openly gay members currently serving in the Missouri General Assembly. He read a transcript of the governor’s interview with The Star and said he was heartened by Parson’s words.
“Missourians have different religious beliefs on this issue. And that’s fine,” Razer said. “But I appreciate that the governor understands that he has his own personal beliefs, but he also has a role as governor of our state. He understands not everyone agrees with him, and that doesn’t mean they should be discriminated against.”
Razer said that he agrees with Parson that no one’s religious beliefs should be infringed upon.
“I’m willing to have a good faith conversation with people like Gov. Parson who have the right intentions in mind,” Razer said. “I believe we can end discrimination against LGBT Missourians while alleviating the fears of people who worry they will be persecuted for their religious beliefs.”
Two versions of the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, more commonly known as MONA, were filed in the House last year. Neither was referred to committee until near the end of the legislative session.
The bills were quickly approved by the committee, but with virtually no time left before the legislature adjourned for the year, they died before being debated by the full House.
House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, said he plans to send MONA to committee, “and if the committee wants to vote it out we’ll move that bill forward.”
“I don’t know if the full House is going to support something like that,” Haahr said, “but I’m fully engaged in having that discussion.”
He noted that Springfield’s city council approved a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2014 only to see it repealed by voters.
“I think there is a lot of hesitation to expand protected classes in Missouri,” Haahr said. “This is an issue I’ll defer to the committee to hear both sides and make an informed choice.”