by Mike Ferguson
(St. Charles, MO) – Many political pundits and journalists consider Missouri to be a state that’s becoming more “red” – conservative – with each passing election these days but that’s not stopping efforts on the key liberal issues of gay rights.
One of those efforts is underway in the State Legislature and the other in the courts.
The “Missouri Nondiscrimination Act” is the attempt to include sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s protected categories when it comes to employment, housing and public accommodations.
The bill is designed to extend the protections into the private sector.
It’s not a new proposal and it didn’t have much of a chance to make it past the Republican-dominated Legislature this year.
It did get a committee hearing this year, though, and that’s a step farther than lawmakers took with it in 2013. Supporters of the bill are not conceding defeat on the issue.
On their website, PROMO – the state’s largest gay rights organization – makes it clear that this is a long-term debate.
The group’s page dedicated to the issue says “This is not an issue that is won in a single year, but a multi-year strategy of working at the local level, while systematically achieving benchmark progress year over year in the legislature.”
It’s also a clash of freedoms, depending on who you ask.
Jeffrey Mittman is the Executive Director of the ACLU of Missouri, which supports the bill.
“What people don’t realize is it is absolutely legal here in the State of Missouri for a hotel to say ‘You can’t rent a room here, you’re lesbian.’ It is absolutely legal under current law for an employer to say ‘No need to apply, we don’t hire gays.'”
But what about the rights of the business owner to choose which business transactions to accept or decline? The Missouri Torch’s owner and publisher, Duane Lester, believes there is another angle to consider.
“What this whole issue boils down to is, you have a business owner who starts their business, they invest their capitol, they invest their time – they invest time away from their families – into this business. Does that person then have the right to say who he hires and who he fires and who he keeps employed.
“Basically, we’re talking about the freedom of association.”
The Missouri Torch is one of Missouri’s leading conservative websites.
Mittman finds the argument interesting but disagrees.
“…government’s role is to make the rules so that there’s an even playing field. Without that government standard, we know that discrimination does happen.”
Also on the political radar of both LGBT activists and their opponents is a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU in Jackson County. That filing is to challenge the part of Missouri’s constitution that requires the state to recognize only marriages between one man and one woman.
Voters approved that part of the state constitution in 2004 with over 70% of the vote.
Mittman says the lawsuit seeks to require Missouri to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.
This issue is not as cut and dry along party lines as it used to be, though. An active and often younger faction of the Republican Party is more libertarian than traditional conservative on the issue, including Lester.
“When I got married, I remember the minister saying ‘By the power vested in me by the State of Missouri, I name you man and wife.’
“The power to name [us] man and wife comes from God, not the State of Missouri. We’ve accepted the idea that our rights come from government.”
Lester says he’d like to see the government have little or no role when it comes to marriage.
“What that basically is, is a consenting adult and another consenting adult going before their deity of choice and saying ‘we choose to live together and we make this bond in front of you and with you.’ Why do we need a government involved in that ceremony at all?”
That view does not appear to be the predominant one within the Republican Party and conservative circles in general.
The next major activity in the legal process of the ACLU’s lawsuit is expected to happen this fall, likely in September, according to Mittman.
Note: The three largest and most active faith-based conservative groups in Missouri which oppose legalizing gay marriage and typically oppose gay-rights measures in general were contacted and invited to be on this week’s program. All three were contacted at least twice. All three either directly declined the invitation or chose not to respond.
On the web:
PROMO’s page on the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act: http://promoonline.org/issues/nondiscrimination.html
ACLU of Missouri: http://www.aclu-mo.org/
The Missouri Torch: http://www.TheMissouriTorch.com