Debate over LGBT protections expose rift between business groups, some member businesses

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – When Rep. Stephen Webber, a Democrat of Columbia, presented his bill on Wednesday that would add gender identity and sexual orientation to the classes protected from discrimination in Missouri, some of the loudest voices in its favor hailed from the state’s business community.

“This should be a state policy,” said Tricia Workman, a lobbyist for the Monsanto Company, “not just an individual business’s policy.”

Hart Nelson, who represents the St. Louis Regional Chamber of Commerce (home to many of the state’s largest corporations, including Express Scripts, which also testified in support), added, “We support laws that will strengthen this regions’s business climate.”

But, as soon as the businesses, themselves, sat down on Wednesday, their representatives at the state level — including the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and the Associated Industries of Missouri – stood up to offer their opposition to the measure.

“We would oppose adding any classes until we get employment law reform,” said Jay Atkins, a lobbyist for the chamber. “There is a very serious policy discussion to be had that involves the employment law framework as it exists today. The position of the chamber is that those laws need reformed and we will oppose the addition of any new classes until those reforms are in place.”

Atkins noted that the chamber, along with many of its members, already has anti-discrimination policies on the books. “To suggest we are here to advocate for discrimination is offensive and untrue,” he said.

Rep. Gina Mitten, a Democrat of St. Louis, said that is exactly what the chamber was doing. She said the business group was trying to “hijack” Webber’s bill to hold it hostage until it got its way on other policies. “I find that deeply disappointing,” she added.

Aside from the rift between the chamber and its members, the hearing was much like other hearings on legislation here seeking to extend protections to people based on sexual orientation and gender identity: It pitted PROMO, a Missouri group that advocates for on behalf of the state’s LGBT community, against Christian conservatives who argue that the policy could be a detriment to religious liberties in the state.

“Why is the bill before us,” asked Kerry Messer of the Missouri Family Network. “It seems to me this is targeted at individuals who are small business owners, these families who own a small rental property… It’s forcing these particular people to violate their individual conscience.”

Ron Calzone, who advocates on behalf of Missouri First, said, opponents of the bill are being wrongfully ridiculed.

“In America, you have a right to discriminate as a private citizen,” he said. “We’re afraid to say that now, but it’s the truth.”

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, asked Calzone if he believed that same logic could be applied to other protected classes, particularly African Americans.

“I think that I have the god-given freedom to discriminate as a private individual against anyone I want to,” Calzone said.

This legislative session marked the fourth year Webber has filed the bill, referred to by supporters as the ‘Missouri Non-Discrimination Act.’ Earlier this month, a similar bill sponsored by Senate Democratic Leader Joseph Keaveny was voted out of committee.

The House committee did not take a vote on Wednesday.

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