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News covering policy and issues related to city and county governments in the Ozarks.

Supporters Narrowly Outweigh Opponents in Non-Discrimination Bill Testimony

Mayor Bob Stephens thanked citizens for their civility during a congested public comment period as the Springfield City Council on Monday night considered bills adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s non-discrimination ordinance.

24 people spoke in favor of the measure, while 21 were opposed, according to the city. Those speaking in favor said the ordinance would curb existing discrimination against the LGBT community and prevent gay workers from leaving the city. Opponents questioned the legitimacy of discrimination claims, and expressed concern over transgender use of restrooms and religious freedom.

Watch Monday's meeting.

Stephanie Perkins, executive director of the statewide group PROMO, lives in Springfield with her wife. She told council members that the LGBT community wants to be treated equally, not specially.

“And regardless of the obstacles that lie ahead, we and you should stand as a united front against all forms of discrimination,” Perkins said.

Crystal Brigman, a bill supporter, says failure to pass the ordinance sends a message that the city is not willing to protect all of its citizens in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations.

“Not passing this means that we are not choosing not to meet our duty to protect all of us to the fullest. That we will sit back and watch our city become a sad follower. We will continue to watch our some of our brightest, creative minds, if they have the means, leave our city to brighter pastures with basic protections,” Brigman said.

Wendy Owens, who introduced herself as a transgender woman, added that she is “so much more than a summation of that label.” Owens says she is fortunate to have a boss who is supportive and understanding of her lifestyle, but many do not.  

While some gay and lesbian proponents of the bill spoke to their experiences in the city, many spoke on behalf of friends and family. Jeff Munzinger’s daughter came out 10 years ago.

“Since then I’ve come to count as friends many who identify as LGBT. Most of them couldn’t be here tonight. Believe me they might have wanted to attend but they couldn’t accept the risk. Imagine for a moment the price that they could pay for identifying in public. Job security being paramount,” Munzinger said.

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Credit Scott Harvey / KSMU
At its peak, roughly 35 people waited outside as capacity inside had been reached.

But speakers like Calvin Morrow, the executive director of Christians United for Political Action, believes discrimination claims have most likely been subjective. He says it puts the accused in a vulnerable state and could damage their reputation.

“I keep looking for the grassroots uprising saying ‘let’s do something about the problem of discrimination.’ And all I’m able to find outside of political advocacy groups and this council is this is pretty much something that’s being perpetrated on us,” says Morrow.

The issue of transgender use of restrooms came up throughout the evening. One man claimed passage would lead to instances where “children are traumatized” by men dressed in women's clothing using women's restrooms. Another citizen, Rebecca Hopper, a mother of three, fears protections for public accommodations would open the door for sexual predators to pose as transgendered individuals.

“This ordinance elevates the rights of transgendered above the rights and safety of our children. So I’m urging you, please, err on the side of caution for children’s rights instead of the adults who should be willing to put their rights aside, for the peace of mind of parents and the safety of our children.”

Pastor Mark Hollick, who is opposed to the ordinance, asked why there is a religious exemption in the bills to begin with, stating “It is prejudicial by nature to have an exemption."

Phil Harmon, meanwhile, implored council not to vote on the ordinance and “turn it over to the citizens of Springfield,” adding that the ordinance will not help the LGBT community but hinder them and set the city back.

Two bills were before council. The stronger of the two would expand sexual orientation and gender identity in the areas of housing, employment and public accommodations. The substitute bill would offer protections in housing only. It also calls for creating another task force directing the Mayor's Commission on Human Rights and Community Relations to conduct a study on discrimination.

Both bills include a religious exemption for housing.

Prior to public testimony, council voted 8-1 to amend the more extensive proposal to include an expanded religious exemption for employment. According to the amendment’s sponsor, Councilwoman Cindy Rushefsky, it reflects the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in an employment case involving Hobby Lobby.

At its peak, roughly 35 people waited outside City Hall as the Council Chambers and two overflow rooms within had reached capacity.

The meeting came two years after council tabled the controversial item and later formed the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Task Force. After months of review, the task force released its recommendations in November 2013, and formally presented its report to council members last month.

Council is expected to vote on the issue Oct. 27, when all members are expected to be able to attend for the vote.

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