The St. Louis Board of Aldermen is considering a bill that would bar employers and landlords from discriminating against women who are pregnant, use contraception or have had an abortion.
If approved, the bill would add pregnancy and reproductive health decisions to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance, alongside protections based on race, sex or disability. It defines reproductive health decisions as any that are related to the use of contraception, the initiation or termination of a pregnancy, and the use of a drug, device or medical service related to reproductive health.
During public testimony at a committee hearing Wednesday, an attorney for the Archdiocese of St. Louis threatened legal action if the bill is passed on the grounds that it violates religious freedom.
“If it is enacted, we will march into federal court, and through civil means, seek redress through this unlawful and unjust bill, which cannot withstand judicial scrutiny,” said Tom Buckley, general counsel for the Archdiocese.
Buckley argued the bill violates the rights of religious groups that don’t want to be complicit in abortion and other practices they find unethical. He argued the ordinance could be construed to force Catholic organizations to include contraceptive coverage in health insurance plans, and to forbid them from refusing to rent space to an organization that provides abortions. The bill’s sponsors say that the language does not go this far.
Other faith leaders spoke in favor of the change.
“It dismays me that the magisterium opposes including pregnant women as a class from employment and housing discrimination in the city of St. Louis,” said the Rev. Teresa Danieley, on behalf of NARAL Pro Choice Missouri. “As any woman who has ever applied for a job while pregnant knows — and I have been pregnant, successfully, three times — pregnancy discrimination is rampant in employment.”
According to the most recent numbers published by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, local and federal agencies received about 6,000 complaints regarding pregnancy discrimination a year between 2007 and 2011. $17.2 million in settlements and other resolutions were paid out in fiscal year 2011.
“Certainly we don’t want unemployed, un-housed women to be discriminated from finding quality housing, from getting a job, and from being able to support the life of that unborn child,” said Alderwoman Cara Spencer, a cosponsor of the bill. “Speaking from the point of view as a single mother, I can attest that is a very important piece of the puzzle when we are talking about protecting our most vulnerable citizens, our children.”
For the measure to proceed, Alderman Joseph Roddy, who chairs the city’s Housing, Urban Development and Zoning Committee, would have to set another hearing for a vote.
Follow Durrie on Twitter: @durrieB.
An earlier version of this story misstated the Rev. Teresa Danieley's title.