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St. Louis County Council extends anti-discrimination ordinances to gays

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 27, 2012 - The St. Louis County Council has voted to include sexual orientation and gender identity in its anti-discrimination ordinances, a move supporters say provides a welcoming message to the gay community in the state’s largest county.

Still, the bill's passage came Tuesday after an overflow crowd spoke overwhelmingly — and at times passionately — against it.

Councilman Pat Dolan’s proposal is aimed at protecting individuals who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered (LGBT) from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations. The bill would add "sexual orientation" and "gender identity" to the county’s hate crime statutes and include those terms in anti-discrimination ordinances on contracting and county hiring.

Dolan's proposal would affect St. Louis County's unincorporated areas. If an entity runs afoul of these regulations, said St. Louis County deputy county counselor Bob Grant, they could be fined anywhere from $50 to $1,000.

"I think it's the right thing to do," said Dolan after the meeting. "I believe St. Louis County should be a leader and I'm glad the council... supported this. It's 2012, and I don't think there should be any discrimination in St. Louis County. And I'm glad that we could move on."

The bill ended up passing 4-3. Four of the council's five Democrats — Dolan, Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, Councilman Mike O'Mara, D-Florissant, and Steve Stenger, D-Affton — voted in favor.

"My vote stands for the proposition that employment, housing and public accommodation decisions should be based on a person's qualifications, not sexual orientation or gender identity," Stenger said. "I believe that history shows that inclusive communities are successful communities. These are communities where all citizens can share in economic opportunities and where all citizens have the opportunity to reciprocate."

The council’s two Republicans — Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, and Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin — voted against the measure. Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, also voted no.

"I have concerns about the language, as well as the possible consequences of this ordinance," Erby said.

St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley, a Democrat, signaled earlier this year that he would sign a bill similar to Dolan’s measure.

Andrew Shaughnessy, a St. Louis-based organizer for PROMO — the region's primary LGBT advocacy group  — said before the vote that passage of the measure would show that St. Louis County is "warm and welcoming to the LGBT community," and that the county "needs us in order to make a diverse workforce happen."

"For St. Louis County to pass these protections, it's just going to show that there’s continued momentum that the LGBT community does deserve to protected and needs to be protected from discrimination," Shaughnessy said. "This is a problem that we're seeing throughout Missouri. And it is a problem that we'll continue to see. And this is what our fight is for our protections. It’s for simple, basic protections."

Overflow crowd exudes passion

Not everyone shared Shaughnessy's perspective. The vast majority of the 92 people signed up to speak during the nearly two-hour public forum urged council members to reject the proposal.

Many in the crowd expressed opposition to Dolan's bill on religious grounds. For instance, Theresa Douglas called Dolan's bill "an affront to Christianity."

Joann Raisch added, "Having taking upon yourself to pass such legislation, I further wondered if the 10 Commandments were also cancelled." 

"This piece of legislation will only feed the coffers of attorneys," Raisch said.

Charles Morgan urged the council not to "adulterate and contaminate a current, righteous law that currently protects the rights of all St. Louis County citizens" by adding sexual orientation and gender identity.

"There is a large population in St. Louis County whose faith is grounded in the love for humanity, that is rooted in more than four millennia of Judeo-Christian theology," said Morgan, a reverend. "While passage of Bill 279 will certainly satisify a very strong, vocal, politically saavy population in St. Louis County, I have no evidence that it reflects the will of the larger majority of the St. Louis County residents."

Surrogates for House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, and state Sen. Brian Nieves, R-Washington, read letters opposing Dolan's bill. Both letters said the ordinance could have negative consequences on St. Louis County businesses, a contention repeated by numerous opponents of the bill.

State Sen. Jim Lembke, R-Lemay, said that without an exception for "right of conscience," the proposed ordinance would run afoul of the Missouri Constitution.

"It's clearly unconstitutional," said Lembke after the meeting. "When you weigh that there is no exception clause here for religious right of conscience and religious liberty, the Missouri constitution is clear. So I think anybody who lives in St. Louis County or a group of small business people might think that this is something that they want to get clarification through the court system."

Lembke added that he didn't know whether he would get involved in a legal challenge. He lost re-election this month to state Rep. Scott Sifton, an Affton Democrat who spoke out earlier this year in favor of a measure like Dolan's bill.

Opponents' passion on the issue spilled over to the vote. Burkett — a strong supporter of the Dolan's bill — was booed after describing some of opposition's arguments as "intolerance" and "bigotry."

And after O'Mara voted for the bill, somebody in the crowd shouted "not a Catholic."

While the vast majority of speakers opposed the proposals, supporters of Dolan's measure echoed Shaughnessy's contention that the ordinance would do much to help St. Louis County's LGBT residents feel at home.

"We have a choice before us: Do we make St. Louis County the next county in Missouri to fully support and recognize equality for all and not some?" said Sherrill Wayland, executive director of SAGE Metro St. Louis, a group representing older LGBT residents.

PROMO takes local focus

Several St. Louis County municipalities — including Clayton, Richmond Heights, Olivette and University City — have passed ordinances including LGBT individuals into anti-discrimination laws. Similar measures have also been passed in the city of St. Louis and Kansas City.

The local focus, Shaughnessy said, is necessary. He noted that the Missouri General Assembly consistently has failed to add sexual orientation and gender identity to state anti-discrimination statutes, a move that could provide LGBT legal standing to sue. A group is trying to get that issue before Missouri voters for the 2014 election cycle.

Because of the state's inaction, Shaughnessy said, advocates must look locally for legislative progress.

"We’ve working on this for the past 13 years. And we now are recognizing that communities are starting to stand up because Jefferson City is not," Shaughnessy said. "And so we’re starting to see local communities know their citizenry and know that LGBT citizens frequent their cities. And they know that they need protecting when others are in their city limits.

"Jefferson City continues to not hear our call for basic protections," he added. "And so, going from municipality to municipality, it's a wake-up call for Jefferson City that LGBT people live in Missouri, we help the economy. We are hard-working citizens that deserve to be protected."

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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