The defeat of a “religious freedom” amendment to Missouri’s constitution last week left gay-rights advocates overjoyed.
They had poured everything they had into stopping the bill out of fear that it would enshrine anti-LGBT discrimination into the state’s constitution. And aiding in their efforts were leaders in the business community, most notably the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry, which argued the amendment would have a detrimental impact on the state’s economy.
Last Wednesday, a Missouri House committee deadlocked on the issue, effectively killing it for the year.
While their victory may have been sweet, the joy was dampened by a simple fact: There is still no law in Missouri that prohibits discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender individuals.
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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.
To put it in the context of debate over the religious freedom amendment: A Missouri baker doesn’t need the protection of such an amendment to refuse service to a gay couple seeking a wedding cake. The law already permits them to turn that couple away.
For nearly two decades, a group of advocates and lawmakers has tried to change that by passing legislation that would include sexual orientation and gender identity alongside things like race, gender, religion and age that are protected in the state’s Human Rights Act.
Their efforts have repeatedly fallen short, in no small part because of opposition from their biggest ally on the fight against the religious freedom amendment” — the Missouri chamber of commerce.
“It’s a frustrating paradox,” said Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus, who for eight years was the only openly gay member of the Missouri Senate. “I’m grateful (the chamber) saw how wrongheaded this proposed amendment was. But like so many civil rights struggles, it’s one step forward and two steps back.”
The chamber declined to comment when contacted by The Star. But a spokeswoman said the organization’s policy council, which is made up of business leaders from around the state, will be studying this issue and many others this summer to set the policy vision going into the 2017 legislative session.
In January, the Missouri chamber renewed its longstanding opposition to adding legal protections for gender identity and sexual orientation to state law, saying it would be a mistake unless lawmakers pass legislation making it more difficult for workers to win employment discrimination lawsuits. The organization has argued for years that adding LGBT protections to state law could open businesses up to frivolous lawsuits.
Last year, the organization went a step further by pushing unsuccessfully for a state law that would roll back any local nondiscrimination ordinances now on the books, such as those in Kansas City and Jackson County.
The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, which would provide discrimination protections for LGBT individuals, was approved by a Senate committee Feb. 3. No action has been taken on the bill since then.
And for the last two months, any talk about discrimination has been in the context of debate over the religious freedom amendment.
“It’s disheartening that we haven’t moved forward on” the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, said state Rep. Randy Dunn, a Kansas City Democrat who sponsored a House version of the bill. “I’m hopeful we can actually go in the right direction soon instead of spending so much time debating whether or not to move backward.”
In 2011, James Pittman was fired from a job he’d held for seven years. He filed a lawsuit against his former employer for discrimination, claiming he was treated poorly and ultimately fired because he was gay.
Pittman’s lawsuit was dismissed last fall. Missouri’s Western District Court of Appeals in Jackson County ruled Pittman couldn’t sue because Missouri law doesn’t include discrimination protections for LGBT citizens.
“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 Welsh wrote at the time.
For many, the fact that big business rallied to help kill the religious freedom amendment was no surprise. The vast majority of Fortune 500 companies have rules against discrimination of gay workers and offer benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees.
Overland Park-based Sprint Corp., for example, has offered health insurance and other employee benefits to same-sex couples since 2005.
Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican who sponsored the religious freedom bill, balked at the opposition of big business, saying during a House committee hearing on the proposal that “Missourians are going to resent being bullied by corporate elites.”
Republicans who helped kill the religious freedom bill “caved to pressure from special interests.”
The amendment, which was a response to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, would have asked Missouri voters to amend the state constitution to protect certain individuals and businesses who cite religious beliefs when refusing service to same-sex couples.
Its proponents said it was needed to prevent those with sincerely held religious beliefs from being punished by government, and they’ve vowed to continue their push in the years to come.
“I understand this is a very difficult issue, and I remain committed to fighting for the religious freedoms of all Missourians,” House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, said in a statement. “I am confident (the Republican House) caucus will continue to pursue policy solutions to ensure these freedoms are protected.”
Justus said the fight over religious freedom feels like “the last-ditch effort from folks who have really not accepted that LGBT individuals as a part of our society and deserving of all the same rights as everybody else.”
She’s hopeful that the defeat of the amendment bodes well for the future of gay rights in Missouri.
“When I hear people talking about their faith and respecting all humans in the same sentence,” she said, “it occurs to me that society is changing and Missouri is changing along with it.”