The Missouri Influencer Series

Missouri lawmakers, schools moving closer to embracing LGBTQ rights

Gender-neutral bathrooms at Rising Hill Elementary await students

At the new Rising Hill Elementary School, 7301 N.E. 108th St., gender-neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area and individual locking toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. The school is in the North Kansas City district.
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At the new Rising Hill Elementary School, 7301 N.E. 108th St., gender-neutral student bathrooms have a common sink area and individual locking toilet stalls that can be used by boys or girls. The school is in the North Kansas City district.

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Missouri Influencer Series

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For at least two decades, lawmakers in the Missouri General Assembly have passed the baton on gay rights.

But in 2019, those supporting legal protections for the LGBTQ community hope to cross something of a finish line.

Next year is when some expect to see passage of proposals floated every session since 1998 to include sexual orientation among societal classes protected from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. The effort has gone by the moniker MONA — the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act.

A consensus is building, no doubt: On the general point of gay, lesbian or transgender persons needing legal cover from losing jobs or potential homes on the sole basis of their sexual selves, The Kansas City Star’s panel of business leaders, policymakers, community catalysts and opinion shapers — “The Missouri Influencers” — speak almost in a singular voice:

▪ “Absolutely!” on the necessity for LGBTQ protections, said Jennifer Lowry, chief toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital. “It is unfathomable to me that in 2018 we continue to have this conversation.”

▪ “Absolutely,” echoed Pam Whiting, vice president for communications for the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce.

▪ “An emphatic ‘YES’” to MONA, wrote former Kansas City Mayor Kay Barnes, now at Park University, in response to a brief survey to Influencers on the issue.

But ask about the details: How exactly do we get there — ensuring that civil rights are equal between those LGBTQ and those not, in all matters public or private? Then some opinions waiver.

The Missouri Influencer Series brings together readers of The Star and 51 high-profile Missourians for conversations about the most pressing matters confronting the state. Asked about LGBTQ issues, readers in an online survey rated as their top question whether the state should extend legal protections to LGBTQ people at work, in housing decisions and in private businesses.

Of more than 30 Influencers who weighed in on that question, many allowed that difficult but realistic challenges stir in the details.

Who prevails, for example, when someone’s sexual orientation clashes with the biblical beliefs of a faith-based employer or adoption agency, wedding planner, university or service providers to the aged?

Or, how should society settle tensions that arise when schools provide special restroom privileges for pupils transitioning to the gender with which they identify?

That riddle is now being weighed by the Missouri Supreme Court, which could rule by Election Day on a locker room dispute in the Blue Springs School District.

The primary beachheads in Missouri and much of the nation are courtrooms considering, case by case, matters pitting religious liberties, personal privacy and the meaning of equal protection.

In a yet another case being mulled by the Missouri Supreme Court, a gay man working for the state Department of Social Services said he was treated poorly because he lacked “stereotypical attributes of how a male should appear and behave.” Missouri’s Human Rights Commission rejected his case after ruling that the worker was claiming discrimination on sexual orientation rather than on his sex, or gender, and thus he was not in a protected class under state law.

An appeals court ruled in the man’s favor and the state appealed.

“There are still many people not there with us,” said Kansas City Councilwoman Jolie Justus.

She was the first openly gay person to win a state Senate seat 12 years ago.

Despite enormous strides in LGBTQ acceptance since then, Justus said, Missourians in many communities can still be fired for setting on their office desk a portrait of a same-sex spouse.

Equal protection

Sharpest on the radar of gay-rights issues in Missouri is potential passage of a bill that would protect what groups increasingly call “LGBTQ” persons from discrimination in employment and housing.

(Just this summer the St. Louis-based advocacy group PROMO added to the LGBT designation the letter “Q” , for queer, signifying a proud stance of many in the movement, especially millennials, to project more inclusive lifestyles over specific categories of sexuality.)

Regarding job discrimination, push-back groups include the Associated Industries of Missouri, representing hundreds of companies. Ray McCarty, the group’s president and CEO, told The Star, “We oppose legislation that sets up new ways of suing employers.”

The concern over creating grounds for too many lawsuits is expressed by some Kansas City area Influencers, as well.

“I would resist adding special classes of protection beyond the already powerful anti-discrimination laws,” said Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library. “That said, I’m open to evidence that such discrimination is a serious problem which needs legal redress.”

Missouri House Rep. Greg Razer, a Kansas City Democrat, is trying. He said he and a Republican colleague — the only openly gay members of the legislature — are encountering growing support from legislators to approve LGBTQ protections after 20 years of dodging the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act.

In May, Razer’s bill won 6-0 approval from a state legislative committee — just the second time a committee cleared a MONA measure since the movement took off. “That’s as far as we got,” Razer said. “And sadly, that was a victory.”

But he expressed confidence that anti-discrimination forces finally have enough backing from Missouri lawmakers — including many older Republicans once opposed — that a resubmitted bill may quickly become law after legislators convene in January.

“I feel like at any moment the floodgate on this issue is going to open,” Razer said.

He noted that Gov. Mike Parson, a Republican, voted as a state senator in 2013 for one version of the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act.

No such measure became law this year, as legislative leaders who have come around on MONA were cautious not to rile conservative voter bases in 2018 elections. But Razer said that he has heard enough support from both sides of the political aisle that passage is closer than ever before.

John Hancock, a political consultant who for many years headed the Missouri GOP, agreed.

With conditions.

“If it’s written narrowly enough” so as not to impose on the rights on faith-based employers who might “object out of conscience,” then many conservatives will support the legislation, Hancock said.

“As a matter of general principle,” he added, “nobody should be for discrimination.”

Kansas City, Jackson and St. Louis counties and a dozen other Missouri cities have local ordinances that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But for LGBTQ persons facing unfair treatment at work or in obtaining housing, “to use just a city law to get the protections they need isn’t enough,” Justus said.

She said it’s time for the state to extend protections it has long carved into law for classes of race, age, religion, sex and the disabled.

Schools and gender ID

On another front, Missouri public school districts are quickly confronting, one by one, a push in some communities for “gender-neutral” bathrooms.

When classes opened last month in the North Kansas City School District, students and parents seemed to welcome fully enclosed single-occupancy stalls at two new grade schools, two sixth-grade centers and North Kansas City High School. Signage on the rooms feature male and female figures, providing private and more comfortable accommodations for students regardless of their gender identity, school officials told The Star.

In Blue Springs, a legal showdown ensued in 2016 when school administrators denied a transgender student’s request to use male locker room facilities.

Attorneys for the teen — identified as “RMA” in court documents — argue the pupil was discriminated against on sex-based grounds, a violation of the Missouri Human Rights Act. The school district counters that the law’s definition of “sex” doesn’t apply to RMA’s request.

A Jackson County judge and the Missouri Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the district. A state supreme court decision is expected in the fall.

Across Missouri, “we’ve had school districts quietly working with transgender students for a while, and nobody’s even noticed,” said Kelli Hopkins, associate executive director for the Missouri School Board Association. “Most district don’t draw a line until it comes to locker rooms and bathrooms.

“As cases are going up through the courts, you’re getting different results...We recommend that (schools) do whatever you can to accommodate all students.”

Transgender accommodations, in schools and the workplace, will continue to evolve, said attorney Maurice Watson, who heads a diversity and inclusion committee at the Husch Blackwell law firm.

Watson, an Influencer, said he has sat in meetings with local corporations attended by prominent transgender employees young and old.

“They may not be on the corporate board, but these are people in visible positions at their firms,” Watson said. “They are present and they are proud.”

Religious freedoms

Many of The Star’s Influencers referenced a need to respect religious freedoms while affirming LGBTQ rights and legal protections.

Former U.S. Sen. Jack Danforth: “I think that people should be protected from discrimination based on sexual orientation, except I think that the law should allow for businesses and organizations to practice their religious beliefs when their religion does not recognize same-sex marriage.”

Former state legislator David Steelman, chairman of the University of Missouri Board of Curators: “All reasonable people should agree that discrimination is wrong and should be discouraged.

“However, the details of the remedy are always more important than is realized. It is important the legislation not be unduly restrictive of religious freedom or freedom of association.”

Lawyer and radio host Jane Dueker questioned whether the statehouse ever will agree on a resolution: “Similar to gay marriage, I think the legislature will punt and force the courts to do the right thing then say, ‘it is settled.’”

Wouldn’t be a first for Jefferson City.

“Perhaps it’s in the state’s DNA,” said Influencer Richard Martin, of JE Dunn Construction, “to be more like a follower than a leader on progressive issues.”

The Star’s Allison Kite contributed this report.

Previous survey: Organized labor

Next survey: Minimum wage

We want to hear from you

Initiative petitions have put minimum wage hikes on ballots across the country in recent years, and this year, Missourians will vote this fall on whether to raise the minimum rate to $12 per hour. Supporters argue working families need a raise, but some worry a minimum wage hike could hurt businesses. We want to hear from you. What questions do you have about the minimum wage in Missouri? Tell us at KansasCity.com/influencers to help shape our future coverage.

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