For more than two decades, legislators have filed a bill that would explicitly protect LGBTQ Missourians from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodation.
The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, which was pre-filed again this session in the form of two House bills, seeks to expand the list of characteristics in the Missouri Human Rights Act.
That law currently prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex and disability in housing, employment and public accommodation, as well as age-based discrimination in employment and familial status-based discrimination in housing.
MONA, as the nondiscrimination act is referred to, would add sexual orientation and gender identity to that list of characteristics.
Proponents say the bill would still be important as law even if the U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of LGBTQ employees later this year.
What would MONA prohibit?
In terms of housing, not including sexual orientation and gender identity in the human rights law means LGBTQ Missourians are not explicitly protected, as other groups of people are, from being unfairly denied things including the sale or rental of housing or a commercial real estate loan with a fair interest rate and terms by a bank, as is described in Missouri's human rights law.
Across Missouri, UCLA School of Law's Williams Institute last year estimated 180,000 LGBT adults 18 years old or older are not protected from housing discrimination without nondiscrimination statutes that explicitly list sexual orientation and gender identity.
The Williams Institute also determined 131,000 LGBT Missouri workers who are 16 years old and older are not protected from employment discrimination, such as in hiring, pay, conditions and privileges; 217,000 LGBT people 13 years old and older are not protected from discrimination in public accommodations.
Public accommodations refers to access to and service at places such as restaurants, bars, stores, movie theaters, gas stations, schools, stadiums, hotels and state, county or city facilities.
This session's House bills 1527 and 1763, as introduced, also state unfair treatment could be based on a person's presumed or assumed characteristics, "regardless of whether the presumption or assumption as to such characteristic is correct."
"Missouri will enter the year 2020 with laws still in place allowing for the legal discrimination of its LGBTQ citizens. It is beyond time for our state to finally step up and protect all Missourians," Rep. Greg Razer, D-Kansas City, said last month in a news release from PROMO when he filed HB 1527.
PROMO is a nonprofit organization in Missouri that advocates for the LGBTQ community.
HB 1763 was filed by Rep. Tom Hannegan, R-St. Charles. Hannegan and Razer are openly gay.
Missouri's human rights law includes exceptions for religious and other private groups, and the current MONA House bills do not include language that would change those exceptions.
The law also does not require employers to give preferential treatment in hiring to people with any listed characteristics, and the bills do not seek to change that, either.
Previous opposition to the bill has included arguments that, despite not supporting discrimination, businesses should be able to make policy decisions internally, or that sexual orientation and gender identity should not be protected classes.
MONA has not passed out of a full legislative chamber vote since 2013, when then-Sens. Mike Parson and Mike Kehoe were among the 19 senators who voted for it; 11 senators voted against the bill. The House did not take action on MONA then before session ended.
Parson is now the governor; Kehoe is the lieutenant governor.
Current Missouri senators were unsure about MONA's prospects this time around.
President Pro Tem Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, said the issue is not one that's been on the forefront of what he's engaged with, and "(the Senate) will take that as it comes."
Sen. Mike Bernskoetter, R-Jefferson City, said, "That's one of those things we always talk about, (that) never really seems like it gets anywhere. I haven't heard any more information to know whether it's going to go anywhere this year or not."
Sen. Jeanie Riddle, R-Mokane, said, "That's going to be an issue that I think for some people is going to be a hot topic, so I'm going to have to see exactly what we get when it comes across either committee or on the floor."
Of whether she'd like to see MONA at least make it to the Senate floor, Riddle added, "I get aggravated if I have something that is important to my constituents in my district and it doesn't make it through the process to have debate. The Senate is all about free and fair debate, and that's our job as a Senate."
Majority Floor Leader Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said he didn't know if there was enough support in the majority to pass MONA, if it makes it to the Senate. "I would assume there's probably people in our caucus who would entertain the idea that something would, but I haven't had that conversation with anybody, so we'll cross that bridge when we get there."
Minority Floor Leader Sen. Gina Walsh, D-Bellefontaine Neighbors, outrightly supported MONA but thought it might be tough to pass.
"I don't know. I would love to see it, but I've been there so long that I'm kind of jaded," having seen moments when it was thought something on the issue would pass, and then it didn't, Walsh said.
The Missouri Democratic Party later tweeted Jan. 6 that "Session starts in just a few days. For over 20 straight years MONA has been filed to protect LGBTQ+ Missourians. This year we must #PassMONA."
According to the nonprofit, nonpartisan PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute, 64 percent of Missourians in 2018 responded in favor to the polled question of "All in all, do you strongly favor, favor, oppose or strongly oppose laws that would protect gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people against discrimination in jobs, public accommodations, and housing?"
Thirty percent of respondents opposed such laws. The national average was 69 percent in favor, 24 percent opposed.
Court cases only partially matter
All Americans will get some measure of clarity on discrimination protections for LGBTQ people sometime this year, when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on cases centered on alleged employment discrimination against one transgender and two gay employees.
Those three cases were argued Oct. 8, 2019, before the Supreme Court. The legal question at the heart of the cases is whether the prohibition against sex-based discrimination in Title VII federal employment law also protects against sexual orientation and gender identity-based discrimination.
A ruling by the court in favor of the employees in the cases would not negate the importance of MONA, said Steph Perkins, executive director of PROMO.
For one, a ruling in favor of the employees — narrow or broad — would only deal with employment, whereas MONA also deals with housing and public accommodation, Perkins said.
A ruling in favor of employees also would "still not (be) adding explicit protection for LGBTQ people; it's just clarifying that sex discrimination does also apply to LGBTQ people," he said.
If the Supreme Court rules on the side of the employers in the three cases and determines the federal prohibition on sex discrimination does not protect gay and transgender employees, "that doesn't mean that the law can't protect them. It doesn't prohibit states or the federal government from explicitly protecting them through sexual orientation and gender identity. It just says that sex discrimination, as it is currently written, does not protect gay and transgender people," Perkins said.
A ruling on the side of employers in the interpretation of Title VII would mean "a law at the federal or state level like MONA would be even more necessary, because (the Supreme Court ruling would be) clarifying that, truly, gay and transgender people do not have any protection. And again, if they rule in favor of the employees, it just means that as the federal law is written right now, that they have some recourse, but we'll still be working hard to pass state and federal laws to protect people explicitly," he said.
There is also an employment discrimination case in Cole County Circuit Court that was filed by a gay employee and a co-worker friend, which has involved interpretation of sex discrimination by the Missouri Supreme Court.
In 2014, Harold Lampley, of West Plains, filed sex discrimination charges with the Missouri Human Rights Commission and the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Lampley said he's a gay man who doesn't exhibit stereotypical male attributes and alleged not exhibiting those stereotypes led to harassment at work with the Missouri Department of Social Services' Child Support Enforcement Division.
In a separate complaint, Lampley's close friend and co-worker Rene Frost, of Cabool, alleged retaliation against her at work because of her association with Lampley.
Cole County Judge Pat Joyce ruled in 2016 the state human rights commission could not investigate sexual orientation cases, but the state Supreme Court ruled last year Lampley and Frost should have been able to be issued a right-to-sue letter because their claims for sex discrimination were due to sex stereotyping — Lampley's sexual orientation was irrelevant.
Since the Missouri Supreme Court's ruling last February, Judge Pat Joyce in June ordered the Commission on Human Rights issue Lampley and Frost their right-to-sue notices, and the two in October filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against the Child Support Enforcement Division. As of Jan. 9, no hearings had been scheduled.
Because the case is about sex stereotyping and not Lampley's sexual orientation, Perkins did not expect the case would be affected by the U.S. Supreme Court's upcoming ruling on Title VII.
"The Lampley case is important, because it does show that sex discrimination protects gay and transgender people to some degree — that a lot of what we're seeing that we feel is sexual orientation discrimination is actually sex stereotyping — and so it creates a clearer picture of what is allowed and what isn't allowed in workplaces," he said.
As for MONA's chances of passing, "I think that election years are always really challenging years," Perkins said, adding feedback from constituents matters.
He said there's a lack of familiarity, particularly with transgender people, so people "don't necessarily have someone they can think about as a person and say, 'I don't believe that my brother should be fired from his job just because he's transgender.'"