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

Council to Revisit Non-discrimination Bill, Recommendations in Spring

Both Springfield and the State of Missouri have bills pending to amend nondiscrimination law. For Springfield, task force

The lengthy consideration over how to revise the City of Springfield’s non-discrimination law returns to the forefront when the bill again comes up for debate in the coming months. And there could be more push at the state level to prohibit discrimination based upon a person’s sexual orientation and gender identity.

While it is unclear how far the bill before state lawmakers may go this session, it seems discussions on sexual orientation in the state are more prominent lately, following the decision by former University of Missouri football player Michael Sam to come out. If selected in the upcoming NFL draft, Sam would become the first openly gay player in the professional sport.

Democratic Sen. Scott Sifton says Missouri should use this as a “rallying cry” to amend the current nondiscrimination law. Fellow Democrat Charlie Norr, a representative from Springfield, says it’s time for change.  

“Let everyone get treated the same. Let’s get rid of our hatred, our bigotry, and let’s accept people for what they do for us in the community as opposed to what they do in their personal life,” Norr said.

Springfield Senator Bob Dixon, a Republican, says that “dignity and respect should be afforded to every individual, no matter what,” adding that the real issue is if the legislation could stand up in court.

“Depends on 34 senators out there and 163 representatives as to what we decide a lawsuit can be based on. And that, I guess is the issue,” Dixon said.

The Missouri Human Rights Act prohibits discrimination in housing, employment, and places of public accommodations based on factors like race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, and disability. In Springfield, City Code currently prohibits discrimination based on similar factors. However, neither city nor state laws include a provision protecting against discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

In August 2012, when the Springfield City Council took up the bill to amend the city’s nondiscrimination law, they were flooded with public testimony. The bill was then tabled and Council set up the Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Task Force to study the issue. Former Circuit Judge Miles Sweeney is the task force’s non-voting chair, who helped draw up a summary and recommendations that were issued to Council in November.

“I don’t know how Council will view it. I was personally impressed by it [the Task Force]. I just thought it was a great example of how government can work with compromise and study,” Sweeney said.

Of seven possibilities considered by the Task Force, two received a majority of support. The first, by a vote of 12-3, recommends City Council pass an ordinance only guarding against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity in housing.

“I think part of the motivation there was the fact that it was very difficult to assess the need in Springfield because in the absence of such a provision in the past, nobody’s made any complaints. And so there’s no record of how many complaints and to what extent that’s a problem.”

Sweeney believes the thinking behind the proposal was that in addition to covering housing, officials could create a mechanism for individuals to make complaints, albeit unenforceable during that time, to determine the need for potentially passing wider protections.

A second suggestion, approved 9-6, backed a broader ordinance protecting gay and lesbian individuals in housing, employment and public accommodations, provided it contains strong religious exemptions.

In its report, the Task Force says that certain religious exemptions may make passage of the bill more acceptable to the faith community, but notes that “opposition from that segment of the population is likely to remain towards the employment and public accommodation sections.”

In 2013, the Task Force conducted a survey of 56 churches to get their take on the bill. 84 percent did not agree that the Springfield City Code should be amended to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the nondiscrimination ordinance. Another question asked churches if they would support the ordinance if discrimination was shown, with 79 percent saying no.

Among the Springfield churches to respond no to both questions were Assemblies of God, that could not meet KSMU's request for comment Thursday, and James River Church, which declined to speak on the subject.   

Rev. John Lindell, of James River Church, was among the prominent pastors to speak out against the ordinance last year. His comments prompted a rebuke from nearly two dozen pastors and Christian leaders, as told by the Springfield News-Leader.

City Spokesperson Cora Scott says the nondiscrimination law is likely to come back before Council by mid-to late April.

While Chairman Sweeney says passage of a nondiscrimination law at the state level protecting sexual orientation and gender identify would take the pressure off of Springfield, he’s unsure that could happen any time soon. But he adds that with the recent news surrounding Michael Sam, it will be interesting what kind of effect, if any, it has on legislators and Missourians.

“I doubt that it will have a lot of influence locally, but it might have some. I mean lots of folks support [University of] Missouri, and Mizzou supported him.”

Sweeney notes that in his experience, people’s attitudes tend to weigh on if they know of a friend or family member who is gay or lesbian.

This year’s nondiscrimination bill before the General Assembly, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Jolie Justus (Kansas City), was referred to the Senate Judiciary and Civil and Criminal Jurisprudence Committee in mid-February.