JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – In what has become a recurring uphill battle for some members of the Missouri legislature, a new version of the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act (MONA) has been filed as SB 653. The bill prohibits discrimination based upon a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.
Sen. Joseph Keaveny, D-St. Louis, will sponsor the latest in a long line of bills that have failed to pass at various stages of development. Bills with at least similar language dating as far back as 2007 and with similar intent since 2000 have been proposed each session, but each one has yet to reach the governor’s desk.
However, Keaveny thinks this year is the year.
“I wouldn’t file the bill if I didn’t think it’s going to pass this year or in the very near future,” Keaveny said. “I think the opposition to it has dissipated somewhat… Overall nationwide, the climate has improved for the passage of this bill. It’s still an uphill climb, but the hill’s not as steep.”
He also noted that this law would not add new or special protections for certain people, but merely extend the protections granted to employees for their race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability, or familial status under the Missouri Human Rights Act. MONA would add gender identity and sexual orientation to that list.
There have been some successes for the more liberally-aligned piece of legislation. In 2013, it came the closest to passing when it made it out of the Senate, and it has been supported by Gov. Jay Nixon, hundreds of businesses across the state and civil rights advocacy groups. The bill may have even more eyes on it after the Pittman v. Cook Paper Recycling Corp. decision which dismissed a claim by Pittman that he had been illegally discriminated against in the workplace for being a gay man. He was allegedly called derogatory slurs and asked if he had AIDS by his employer.
“The plain language of the Missouri Human Rights Act is clear and unambiguous. Employers cannot discriminate against employees on the basis of their ‘sex’,” the decision reads. “The clear meaning prohibiting discrimination based upon ‘sex’ under the Missouri Human Rights Act intended by the Missouri legislature concerns discrimination based upon a person’s gender and has nothing to do with sexual orientation.
“Now 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.”
“It is frustrating to know there are so many elected officials and people across Missouri who are LGBT or who are gay or transgender in their family and we’re not stepping up to protect them,” said Steph Perkins, the interim executive director for the Missouri LGBT advocacy group PROMO.
Opposition in the legislation has mainly come from conservative lawmakers, and that trend shows itself in separate legislation filed this session. Both Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, and Rep. Steve Cookson, R-Poplar Bluff, filed legislation mandating public school bathrooms can only be designated for male or female students. Both bills also provide accommodations for transgender students, but the transgender community argues those acquiesences create a “separate, but equal” standard.
Rep. Eric Burlison, R-Springfield, noted that Springfield voters recently repealed a city non-discrimination ordinance and said MONA would tread into dangerous territory that had too much power over employers’ decisions.
“It’s a bad idea to place employers at increased risk to liability for alleged ‘discrimination’ based not on objective employee traits, but on subjective and unverifiable identities and further increase government interference in labor markets,” Burlison said in a statement to the Missouri Times.
However, Perkins says the law could actually attract business to the state.
“It’s important to note, businesses support legislation like this,” he said. “We have over 1000 businesses across Missouri that support MONA. Many businesses believe that policies like this help the business case in Missouri, they encourage people to move here and stay here.”
A 2013 Small Business Majority Poll found 71 percent of small business owners in Missouri support such a law. For Keaveny, aside from any economic benefit the bill might bring, this legislation is about a moral responsibility to treat people fairly.
“We live in a modern, developed country that prides itself on justice for all. There is no reason a citizen should be treated differently because of their sexual orientation or the gender by which they identify,” Keaveny said. “All hard-working citizens deserve equal treatment under the law.”