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Non-discrimination bill gets another hearing in Missouri legislature

Missouri Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis
Jason Rosenbaum, St. Louis Beacon.

Mike Colona is getting his wish. Two months ago, the Democratic representative from St. Louis attended a Senate committee hearing on Senate Bill 237. The bill bars discrimination in Missouri based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

But after the hearing, Colona was upset because he hadn’t seen similar action from the House.

“What’s so frustrating for me is to come over to the Senate and to sit through a hearing where these issues can be vetted, but yet by the same token we can’t even get a hearing on this in the House,” Colona said back in February.

On Wednesday, a non-discrimination bill (House Bill 407) was not only brought in front of a House committee, but Colona was a member of the committee. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, and like the Senate’s bill, bars discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

“This is good economics,” Webber said in Wednesday’s hearing. “Economies of the future are going to be economies of inclusion. Communities that are successful are communities that retain and respect the skills and talents of all members of that community.”

Colona, the only openly gay lawmaker serving in the General Assembly, said after Wednesday’s hearing he was grateful the bill was assigned to a committee.

“Since the Senate version has had its hearing ... we can kind of take a look on where that bill is and where this bill is or if there’s any differences in the language and try to make sure both bills mirror each other,” Colona said. “So that if either one of them starts to move forward, we can make a credible argument to members that this has already passed in the other chamber so if we really want to make history in Missouri, all we have to do is pass it.”

The Senate’s bill was passed out of committee last week.

But both face an uphill climb. Previous non-discrimination bills regarding gender identity and sexual orientation in Missouri, known as MONA, have never made it through both chambers. Former Senate minority leader Jolie Justus pushed for years to get a bill signed into law. A non-discrimination proposal was added to a Senate bill that passed two years ago, but the House never took it up.

The bills also face opposition from groups such as the state’s chamber of commerce and the Missouri Family Network.

In February’s Senate hearing, Jay Atkins of the Missouri Chamber of Commerce outlined a few changes it wants to see before it supports these bills.

  • A definition of employer
  • Caps on damages
  • Change the wording in the bill from “contributing factor” to “motivating factor” for terminating employment.
  • Allow for summary judgment in employment law cases

Atkins reiterated the chamber’s wishes Wednesday:
“I’m not here to testify that the chamber or quite frankly, anyone that I’m aware of thinks discrimination is a good thing, but what I am saying is there is a very serious policy discussion to be had that involves the employment law framework as it exists in Missouri today,” Atkins said.

The Associated Industries of Missouri joined the Chamber of Commerce and Missouri Family Network in opposition to the bill Wednesday. Groups such as the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce, Monsanto and the ACLU of Missouri testified in support of the bill. 

Atkins said during the hearing he found it offensive to say that he was there advocating for discrimination. But Rep. Gina Mitten, D-St. Louis, said groups such as the state Chamber of Commerce were doing just that.

“I can’t say how deeply disappointed that the chamber would use this bill as an opportunity, as far as I’m concerned and I think other members in this room, to basically hijack a bill about discrimination to advocate for something else,” Mitten said. “Basically what you’re saying is, ‘I’m for it only if I get mine.’”

Colona said he thinks HB407 will be able to stand “on its own merit,” rather than have groups tie the bill into other policy changes.

“Some folks wanted to tie this issue with making it easier for businesses to discriminate against folks in the workplace, in other words changing the standard in a court room,” he said. “I feel pretty safe and pretty confident that the members of the general assembly get it that these are two different and separate topics.”

Colona's ultimate wish of having the bill signed into law, though, is still a long way off. 

No action was taken on the bill by the committee. 

Follow Ray Howze on Twitter: @RayHowze