Gay rights supporters push bills to eliminate bias | St. Louis Public Radio

Gay rights supporters push bills to eliminate bias

Mar 27, 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Gov. Jay Nixon brushed off questions yesterday about gay marriage, an issue  now before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But Nixon, a Democrat, did express support for adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination statutes. That's become an increasingly visible priority among gay rights groups and their allies.

The U.S. Supreme Court held hearings this week on cases involving the constitutionality of California’s ban on same-sex marriage and federal law denying federal benefits to gay couples. The hearings drew substantial attention, in part because of what a Supreme Court decision could mean for states banning gay marriage.

The issue received some increased visibility in Missouri after U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., released a statement Sunday night in favor of same-sex marriage for the first time.

At Tuesday's event in Kirkwood, Nixon – who last year told KOMU that he didn’t support “gay marriage in the past and (I) don't at this point” – was asked about his position. He said he would rather talk about the reason for the event: the need to expand Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act.

“I’ve had my position in the past, obviously,” Nixon said, referring to gay marriage. “We’re here to talk about Medicaid. We’ll let those arguments go. There will be plenty of opportunities to talk about important issues like that in the coming weeks and months. Let’s let the court case be heard and I’d be glad to talk about that.”

In many ways, Nixon's stance on the issue is symbolic: Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 that bans same-sex marriage. Since constitutional amendments can only be changed through a vote of the people, there's not much a governor can do besides offer moral support for such a move.

Backs anti-discrimination push

Nixon is backing a legislative push to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination laws. That legislation has become a priority for gay rights organizations and their allies in Missouri.

In recent years, local jurisdictions – including St. Louis County and some municipalities – have passed ordinances on the issue. But legislation sponsored by state Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, and state Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, hasn’t gained traction.

“I’ve been supportive of that in the past,” Nixon said. “There’s no reason not to do that. I don’t think you should discriminate.”

On Wednesday, PROMO -- a statewide organization aimed at advancing LGBT causes -- rallied in Jefferson City to drum up support for Webber's and Justus' bills. PROMO executive director A.J. Bockelman said in a telephone interview that his group has focused on changing state anti-discrimination laws -- as well as passing stronger anti-bullying measures -- for practical reasons.

"We're pragmatic about it," Bockelman said. "We realize the state of Missouri is a very red state. ... There's an effort within the Republican Party at least to moderate on this particular issue. We believe that the opportunity is available to come together about discrimination because we can all agree that it's not right to be fired because (of being) gay. If you ask an elected official about that directly, they tend to agree with you."

PROMO and Progress Missouri unveiled a new website earlier this week – – to increase attention and awareness. In particular, the site showcases dozens of legislative supporters of the measure -- a group including a handful of House Republicans like state Rep. Anne Zerr, R-St. Charles, and state Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. 

Bockelman said the site is about "basic education."

"We're trying to target the influencers in the state," Bockelman said. "Be they elected officials, people who are involved in the legislative process or people who pay attention to the state legislature. That's our market for this."

Still, Justus' bill hasn't received a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee, while Webber's legislation hasn't been assigned to committee. An attempt by Webber to attach his bill as an amendment to other legislation faltered in 2011.

While Bockelman said the legislative push is "challenging," he said he's seen notable movement on the issue.

"We are in this for the long haul, whether we are victorious this year," Bockelman said. "We're not going anywhere. We're going to continue to advocate for LGBT issues. What I see happening is that you have a party -- the Republican Party -- (that) is really wrestling with this as a core issue. You have the moderate Republicans -- and sometimes even the far-right Republicans that have friends or family that are LGBT -- that are willing to stand up."

Besides efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to anti-discrimination laws through the legislature, a group called Missourians for Equality is angling to put the issue on the 2014 ballot.