- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 9, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri senators heard conflicting testimony Wednesday on whether it makes good business sense to grant legal discrimination protections to people based on sexual orientation.

The legislation remains a bit of a longshot in Missouri’s Republican-led Legislature, but it got a public hearing Wednesday in the Senate’s only Democratic-led committee, where the chairwoman is also the sponsor of the bill.

The proposal would add “sexual orientation” and “gender identity” to Missouri’s list of outlawed reasons for discrimination, which already includes characteristics such as race, religion and disabilities. The bill would create legal protections in both employment and housing, and would expand the definition of discrimination to include any unfair treatment based on a person’s “presumed or assumed” characteristics, regardless of whether those presumptions are correct.

It would not apply to businesses with fewer than six employees or to associations or corporations run by religious organizations, said Sen. Jolie Justus, the bill’s sponsor.

“In this day and age, these protections are common business sense,” said Justus, D-Kansas City.

That belief was backed up by lobbyists for Monsanto Co. and several Democratic officeholders, including for Attorney General Chris Koster, Secretary of State Jason Kander and city and county leaders in the Kansas City and St. Louis areas.

“It’s best for us as a business to be able to retain and attract the best talent available if the laws and our policies allow people to be who they are,” said Duane Simpson, a lobbyist for St. Louis-based Monsanto.

Opponents included lobbyists for two of Missouri’s leading business associations, as well as Catholic and Baptist organizations. They said the legislation could run contrary to the religious beliefs of some business owners and subject them to a new flurry of lawsuits that may lack merit.

“The chamber does not support any legislation that will create a new protected class in the Missouri Human Rights Act and would expose our members and Missouri businesses to increased liability in the courts,” said Jay Atkins, general counsel for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

The Senate Progress and Development Committee took no vote Wednesday on the legislation. Justus said she hopes to attach it as an amendment to another bill before the legislative session ends May 16.

A similar measure was approved by the Senate as an amendment to a bill on the final day of last year’s session. That legislation never was considered by the House.

Fifteen Missouri municipalities, encompassing about one-third of the state’s population, already have discrimination protections based on sexual orientation, said A.J. Bockelman, executive director of PROMO, an organization that advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender equality.

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Discrimination bill is SB962.

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