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Efforts to extend anti-discrimination protections to gays gain big-name backers in state Capitol

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Although chances of passage this legislative session remain slim, bills to extend Missouri’s anti-discrimination protections to gays are still attracting a lot of attention in Jefferson City -- because of the number and prominence of their backers.

Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster this week became the latest of three statewide Democratic officials – including Secretary of State Jason Kander and state Treasurer Clint Zweifel – who are featured in new videos promoting two companion bills (SB96 and HB615) that seek to prevent discrimination in housing, jobs and public accommodations on the basis of someone’s sexual orientation.

“Many Missourians are shocked to learn that an employer can fire someone simply because of that person’s sexual orientation,” Koster said in his video, which shows him standing in front of the state Capitol. “I support the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act to end this unfairness.”

So do at least 55 Missouri legislators, including several Republicans, who have signed on as cosponsors or public supporters of the bills in question – a fact that has prompted some in and outside the state Capitol to take notice.

The supporters include state Rep. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington. “It’s just unconscionable that we, as a state, allow somebody to be fired because of their sexual orientation,’’ he said.

Engler and many of the other supportive legislators are featured – along with Koster, Zweifel and Kander – on a new website Firedforbeinggay.com.

Engler still opposes gay marriage

Engler’s support is noteworthy because he was among the leading backers of the 2004 state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.  While emphasizing that he still opposes gay marriage, Engler noted that he has voted this session to raise the bar for people alleging any sort of discrimination in the workplace.

But gays should be treated the same as anybody else, he said. That means, Engler said, that a gay person working in a secular business like a hardware store, for example, should be covered by the same anti-discrimination protections that the state now extends to people on the basis of race or gender, for example.

“We do not want to persecute these people,’’ Engler said, while emphasizing that he’s a practicing Catholic and doesn’t agree with the gay lifestyle.

Many socially conservative legislators and groups still oppose any efforts to extend anti-discrimination protections to gays. Janet Engelbach, state legislative director for the Eagle Forum, said that her group’s stance “has nothing to do with sexual orientation.”

“There should not be special protections for anyone,’’ Engelbach said. “We should be passing legislation for the many, not the few.”

Term limits helping gay-rights effort?

A.J. Bockelman, executive director of PROMO – the region’s major gay-rights advocacy group – has no illusions about his side’s chances as the General Assembly heads into its final week.

But compared to previous years, “the climate has changed,” Bockelman said. “There is an internal struggle that I’m seeing within the Republican Party about trying to walk a more moderate line…when it comes practically to any gay issue.”

Ironically, he gives a significant chunk of the credit to legislative term limits, which generally restricts officeholders to no more than eight years in the state House or state Senate.

“Term limits has probably helped us more than anything  else,’’ Bockelman said. “It’s brought in a younger set of people who have been more exposed to the LGBT community as a whole.”

That trend will continue, Bockelman believes, unless Missouri's term limit rules are changed.

Among the general public, he added, “most of the general community thinks that the LGBT community already has a protected status on some level.”

So far, Bockelman isn’t seeing strong opposition to his camp’s efforts this session in Jefferson City, but he suspects that inactivity stems largely from conservatives who “discount whether we really have a shot.”

Bockelman declines to offer up any predictions, saying only, “We still have a week left and anything is possible.”

And within two years, another new crowd of lawmakers will come to Jefferson City.

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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