Senate committee hears bill on sexual orientation discrimination

Thursday, February 4, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 8:04 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 10, 2010

*The Department of Mental Health employee who is accused of treating a subordinate poorly because of sexual orientation is a woman. A previous version of this article incorrectly identified her gender.

JEFFERSON CITY — Even with support from representatives of Missouri's labor community and the attorney general, Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Jackson County, said she doubts her bill prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation will pass through the Missouri legislature this year.

The Senate Progress and Development Committee heard testimony Tuesday on Justus' bill to add sexual orientation to Missouri's current civil rights law. While the majority of testimony was in favor of the bill, she said it is unlikely her bill will become law.

"I don't think that in an election year (the bill) could pass through the legislature," Justus said. "But we need to have the debate on the Senate floor."

Before the bill can be considered for time on the floor, it must first be passed out of committee. The committee did not vote on the bill Wednesday — a move Justus said is procedure as the committee rarely votes on a bill the same day testimony is heard.

Clark Brown, a lobbyist for the Service Employees International Union, testified in support of the bill. Brown told the story of an employee at the Missouri Department of Mental Health who was treated poorly by a supervisor because she* suspected the employee was gay.

"You don't understand how much of this is on your front porch," Brown said.

Joan Gummels, legislative director for the attorney general's office, gave a short statement expressing the office's support for the measure.

Following Gummels' statement, Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis City, said the attorney general's office has been a strong supporter of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues.

Bev Ehlen, director of Concerned Women for America — a religious conservative lobbying group — was the only witness testifying in opposition of the bill.

Ehlen said she worries that employers will be unable to fire an employee who is under-performing if the employer has to worry they may be sued because of the sexual orientation of the employee.

"I believe people are discriminated because of their age, because of their sexual practices, because of their weight, they have a speech impediment, because they're ugly, maybe because they're good looking," Ehlen said. "I know that people are being discriminated against. That's still not a reason to change law."

Justus said she hopes the bill will provide an educational experience for members of the legislature. Any new bill can expect to see several years of education, Justus said, adding that changes in societal attitudes make the eventual passage of a sexual discrimination legislation inevitable.

"It will pass eventually. No question," Justus said following the hearing.

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