Bill would bar discrimination based on sexual orientation

Rep. Stephen Webber proposed the bill to the Missouri House.

A bill proposing an amendment to the Missouri Human Rights Act to protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation was re-introduced to the Missouri House of Representatives last week.

House Bill 477, proposed by State Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, intends to have "sexual orientation" added to the list of protections in the act. Forty-eight members of the House cosponsored the bill.

Webber said he believes the time has come to address this underlying issue.

"I don't think anyone should be exploited just because of who they are," Webber said.

The act prevents discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. This discrimination can be related to sex, race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age, disability or familial status; however, in no place does the act protect against sexual orientation.

Rep. Mary Still, D-Columbia, said sexual orientation discrimination is frequently a problem because the House has simply never passed a bill prohibiting it. She said discrimination in this manner should not be legal.

In 2009, there were 135 discrimination complaints in public accommodations, 188 in housing and 1,821 in employment.

Webber said the amendment to the act would help raise Missouri's standards and he hopes it would decrease discrimination due to the legal loophole.

House Bill 205 was also introduced to the House regarding the Missouri Human Rights Act. The bill, though, attempts to weaken current laws prohibiting discrimination.

Under HB 205, as long as an individual or group can show another reason besides discrimination that is equally responsible for their actions, they can defend themselves against litigation.

Webber said HB 205 creates a "49 percent tolerance" policy against discrimination. In other words, he said it would make discrimination more legally defensible and make companies less liable for their actions.

The issue of sexual orientation-based discrimination is also being addressed in the Missouri Senate. Senate Bill 239 strives to add "sexual orientation" and related phrases to the Missouri Human Rights Act. The bill was introduced to committee Feb. 9.

"I think it's a generational issue," Webber said. "My generation is completely okay with homosexuality. Most people I talk to think it's stunning that you can still discriminate against it."

In 2010, Webber introduced similar legislature to two committees, where it passed, but it failed to advance past the House Appropriations Committee. The bill never made it to the floor.

Webber said he felt it was his responsibility to bring the issue up again.

The bill was read a second time Monday, but a congressional hearing has not been scheduled. Normally, economic and more immediate legislation is given priority over social issues.

"I welcome the House to stand up with what they know is right on this," Webber said.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia have already passed bills, which prevent discrimination in regard to sexual preferences.

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