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Missouri Law Could Limit Enforcement Of Supreme Court Ruling Protecting LGBTQ Workers

Demonstrators gathered in downtown St. Louis to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ workers in Missouri. October 17, 2019.
File Photo | Andrea Smith | St. Louis Public Radio
Demonstrators gathered in October 2019 in downtown St. Louis to advocate for the rights of LGBTQ workers in Missouri.

Advocates for gay and transgender workers are calling a U.S. Supreme Court ruling an unexpected victory. But some worry Missouri’s labor laws could make the federal ruling hard to enforce locally. 

The court’s 6-3 decision Monday concerning the Civil Rights Act of 1964 bars employers from discriminating against workers who are LGBTQ. The move cements federal legal protections for an estimated 180,000 adults in Missouri. 

Local activists say they still plan to seek further protections for LGBTQ workers.

Missouri is an “at will” state that allows employers to fire workers at any time, without warning or explanation. That can leave workers without evidence of discriminiation when it has occurred, according to the Rainbow Workers' Alliance, which advocates for LGBTQ workers. 

“I’m convinced that some Missouri businesses will continue to use that at-will status to bully and discriminate against LGBTQIA workers throughout the state,” said Niles Zoschke, an organizer with the grassroots group. 

The alliance has urged area workers to turn to unions and employers with employment contracts that include anti-discrimination language for gay and transgender people. 

For St. Louisan Beth Gombos, the Supreme Court decision seems “too good to be true.” 

Gombos, who is genderqueer and uses "they" and "them" pronouns, said they’re glad that the court ruled in favor of LGBTQ workers. But Gombos isn’t sure the legal protections would have helped them fight discrimination they faced at previous jobs.

“There was a series of events that made me know in my heart of hearts that the reason that I was fired was because I was queer. But there was nothing that would prove that,” Gombos said. 

Advocates still plan to challenge state laws

Even as some celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision Monday, advocates for LGBTQ workers in Missouri say they are focused on changing the state’s laws. 

Missouri’s Human Rights Act does not specifically prohibit discrimination against LGBTQ people and only a handful of cities and counties have laws that offer comprehensive legal protections for gay and transgender workers. 

For more than 20 years in a row, Democratic lawmakers have introduced legislation that would specifically add LGBTQ status to the list of protected categories in the state’s Human Rights Act. The Missouri House and Senate have never passed the legislation.

American Civil Liberties Union of Missouri officials said that some employers might still try to use state law to avoid deny workers protections. St. Louis County attorneys tried this tactic last year when they argued in court that state law didn’t protect a gay police officer from discrimination. 

“We want to fight on every level that we can. Any excuse that any employer or health care provider or housing officer — anyplace where someone might experience discrimination, we want to close all of those doors,” said Jay-Marie Hill, who coordinates the organization’s advocacy for transgender Missourians. 

Hill said that the organization is celebrating Monday’s ruling as a victory for gay and transgender Missourians. Hill said that the ACLU also plans to continue pushing for state legislation that would protect more LGBTQ people. 

Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt signed a legal brief in 2019 that urged the U.S. Supreme Court to allow state legislatures — not courts — to decide nondiscrimination laws.

A spokesman for Schmitt reaffirmed the attorney general’s previous position: “We made a textual argument as it relates to the original meaning of the law, and the Supreme Court has delivered their opinion — Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt believes strongly that every person should be treated with dignity under the law.”

Follow Kae on Twitter: @kmaepetrin

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Kae Petrin covers public transportation and housing as a digital reporter for St. Louis Public Radio.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.