- Associated Press - Saturday, January 23, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon used his final State of the State address this past week to implore lawmakers to bar discrimination against LGBT people, but leaders in the Republican-dominated Legislature say that’s unlikely to happen before Nixon leaves office.

It appears more likely that lawmakers will strengthen Missouri’s religious objections laws, which protect people’s right to act in accordance with their religious beliefs, even if that means discriminating against non-protected groups such as lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.

“I don’t think it has much chance,” House Majority Leader Mike Cierpiot said of nondiscrimination legislation in his chamber, where several proposed bans are pending.

Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, of St. Louis, also filed a bill that would ban housing and employment discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity.

At least 22 states bar discrimination based on sexual orientation and 21 states, including Missouri, have religious objections laws. Missouri law bars state and local government agencies from substantially limiting a person’s right to follow their religious beliefs unless there is a compelling reason to do so.

House Republicans have submitted at least two bills this session that would protect clergy and other organizations that opt not to marry same-sex couples. House and Senate leaders have cited concerns with religious rights this session, which comes months after the U.S. Supreme Court effectively legalized gay marriage throughout the country.

Like the House floor leader, Republican Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said he doubts the nondiscrimination measures’ chances in his chamber. He cited concerns about adding another group to the state’s Human Rights Act: Missouri currently prohibits discrimination in employment based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, disability and age. The state has similar bans on housing discrimination.

“I’m not opposed to discussion, and I’m not opposed to the moral issue,” Richard said. “I’m opposed to the legal issue of another protected class.”

Ray McCarty, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Missouri, also raised concerns about adding LGBT people to the list because he said that would open businesses up to additional lawsuits. He said the organization supports companies adopting nondiscrimination policies on their own.

Democratic Rep. Mike Colona, who says he’s the only openly gay lawmaker in the Legislature, said the argument against adding a protected class in particular presents a challenge for supporters of a nondiscrimination measure.

“We have to deal with reality,” the St. Louis Democrat said. “The reality is, folks do discriminate against LGBT people.”

Colona and other Democrats say there’s still a chance. Backers point to a nondiscrimination bill that passed the Missouri Senate on the last day of the 2013 legislative session when Richard was floor leader. The House didn’t vote on the bill, and Richard said he allowed a vote as a tactical move to get legislation on agriculture through the chamber.

“It’s been made very clear which direction this country is going, and they can only delay so long,” House Minority Leader Jake Hummel said.

A hearing on Keaveny’s nondiscrimination bill is scheduled for Wednesday in the Senate’s only Democratic-led committee, where Keaveny also is chairman.

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