Government & Politics

For 21st straight year, Missouri lawmakers unlikely to outlaw LGBT discrimination

Normally Greg Razer would prefer everyone just ignore the Westboro Baptist Church.

But the second-term Democratic state representative from Kansas City — one of only four openly gay members of the Missouri General Assembly — decided to make an exception.

Five activists from the Kansas anti-LGBT church, known for their “God Hates Fags” signs, traveled to Jefferson City last week specifically to protest Razer and urge Missouri House Republicans to stand strong against the “sodomite game plan.”

Razer hopes their presence highlights what he says is the biggest heartbreak of the 2019 session. That for the 21st straight year, the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act (MONA) is languishing with little hope of becoming law.

“It’s not the voices of the Westboro Baptist Church that concern me,” Razer said. “It’s the silence of the majority party and their leadership that concern me.”

Razer entered the 2019 session optimistic that the timing might finally be right for MONA, which extends the state’s civil rights protections to LGBT Missourians.

For the first time last year MONA passed unanimously out of a Missouri House committee, although the session ended before it could be brought up for consideration by the full House.

Then shortly before the session began, Republican Gov. Mike Parson voiced support for the idea of extending discrimination protections to LGBT Missourians, though he hedged on what role government has in the debate.

But Parson hasn’t publicly mentioned MONA or LGBT-rights since his interview with The Star in December.

And House Speaker Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, didn’t assign MONA to a committee until mid-April, a month before the legislature adjourns for the year.

The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act would add sexual orientation and gender identity to Missouri’s Human Rights Act alongside race, gender, religion and other categories.

It would mean that someone can’t be fired from their job, kicked out of a restaurant or evicted from an apartment for being gay or simply being perceived as gay.

“I was a closeted teenager,” Razer said. “LGBT teenagers are five times more likely to commit suicide than their heterosexual counterparts. Yet what we get from the leadership in this building is silence and inaction.”

MONA doesn’t directly target teen suicide, but Razer said it sends a message to those LGBT teens “that you are valuable, you are cared about and the state of Missouri wants you here.”

Last week Razer learned from Missouri Capitol Police that Westboro Baptist Church planned to protest at the statehouse, inspired by a debate he had last month with Republican Rep. Hardy Billington of Poplar Bluff.

Billington was sponsoring a bill that would prohibit anonymous lawsuits regarding church-and-state lawsuits. Razer argued that anonymity, even in litigation, is sometimes required for a person’s safety.

“When I told my mother I was gay, one of the first things she said to me was ‘please don’t ever move back here,” Razer said. “Not that she didn’t want me close, but because she was afraid for my safety.”

He noted that he grew up in Cooter, a town in Missouri’s bootheel not far from Billington’s district. Then Razer pointed out Billington once asserted that homosexual “lifestyles” kill people at a higher rate than smoking tobacco and wrote a book referring to LGBT people as a “perverted crowd” and “sodomites.”

“When people are in power they can intimidate other people,” Razer said. “If you live in Poplar Bluff, you are probably not going to want to anger the 7,373 people that voted for (Rep. Billington).”

After video of that debate went online, Westboro decided it was time to travel to Jefferson City to protest.

Haahr told reporters last week that he was purposefully ignoring Westboro’s protest.

“Westboro thrives on the attention we pay them,” he said, “so I pay them none.”

The conversation on MONA is “a good one for the legislature to have,” Haahr said. “I don’t know that the issue is necessarily ripe, but I think that’s what the committee process is for to work through the issue and figure out if there’s a path forward for it.”

So with a little more than a week before the end of the 2019 session, MONA got its first hearing of the year on Wednesday in front of the House General Laws Committee.

Rep. Tom Hannegan, a St. Charles County Republican who is openly gay, told the committee that all people have the right to be treated fairly.

“We’ve waiting too long, and this is too important a topic,” he said. “This is about constitutional rights, and about everyone being equal.”

Speaking against the bill Wednesday was Ray McCarty, president of the Associated Industries of Missouri, who said he opposes adding protections for LGBT Missourians “because it allows employers to be sued.”

Legislative analysts predict the bill would result in 88 additional lawsuits a year if it were passed.

McCarty said he has no problem with with the groups currently covered by anti-discrimination laws, on the basis of race or religion, but opposes adding any groups that are “based on feelings.”

Amanda Smith of Desert Stream Ministries in Grandview expressed a similar concern.

“If we open this door, where does it end?” she said. “If it’s based on feelings and self-perception, what’s next?”

Conservative activist Ron Calzone cited property rights in opposing MONA, telling the committee that a restaurant owner should be able to accept or reject customers as they choose.

“I believe we have a god given right to discriminate,” Calzone said.

By omitting sexual orientation and gender identity from the anti-discrimination laws, Razer said. “we are saying we do not want LGBT Missourians protected.”

“The core of this legislation is dignity,” he said. “The dignity to have a job. The dignity to have a roof over your head. The dignity to eat at a restaurant. The dignity to live.”

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Jason Hancock is The Star’s lead political reporter, providing coverage of government and politics on both sides of the state line. A three-time National Headliner Award winner, he has written about politics for more than a decade for news organizations across the Midwest.