- Associated Press - Thursday, October 12, 2017

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri’s Democratic House leader on Thursday called on lawmakers to undo changes to the state’s discrimination laws that the federal government had warned would lead to weaker protections against housing discrimination and funding cuts.

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty said the state could lose an estimated $400,000 to $500,000 a year because of the new law, which she slammed as making it more difficult to seek justice for discrimination. In an August letter, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development warned of possible funding cuts but didn’t cite a specific amount at risk.

“As we warned, SB 43 locks the state courthouse doors to victims of illegal discrimination and forces them to pursue justice in federal court,” McCann Beatty said in a statement. “This is one of the many ways SB 43 protects wrongdoers and punishes victims.”

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At issue is a new law signed in July by Republican Gov. Eric Greitens that raised the legal standard for proving discrimination in housing, employment or public accommodations. It has been lauded by business groups as a way to improve the state’s legal climate and cut down on lawsuits, but it’s also faced criticism from the Missouri NAACP and was cited in a travel advisory the organization issued against the state.

Greitens’ spokesman, Parker Briden, declined to comment and referred The Associated Press to the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Deputy Director Tammy Cavender in a statement said the agency has been working with the federal government “to clear up any apprehension on their part.”

“These conversations are ongoing,” Cavender said. “In the meantime, no Missourian is losing any services.”

She said the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has found Missouri law still complies with federal anti-discrimination law.

It’s unclear whether there will be any appetite to make changes to the state law when members of the Republican-led Legislature return to the Capitol in January for an annual legislative session.

The bill passed 23-9 in the Senate and 98-30 in the House. Republican Sen. Gary Romine, whose rent-to-own business is facing a pending discrimination lawsuit, did not immediately return an AP request for comment Thursday.

Under previous Missouri law, people suing for discrimination had to prove that a protected class such as race, gender, age or ability was a contributing factor in their firing, denial of housing or other adverse act.

Now, they must prove it was a “motivating factor” - a difference that breaks from long-established housing protections available under federal law, a U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development official wrote in a July letter to the Missouri Human Rights Commission.

Among other changes, the law enacted caps on the amount of damages someone must pay for discriminating and required those alleging discrimination to file an administrative complaint before filing a civil lawsuit.

Bryan Greene, general deputy assistant secretary for the federal Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, in the July letter said changes outlined in the law will mean “significant departures from the protections, remedies, and procedures contained” in federal housing law.

Greene warned that enacting the state law would mean that the federal housing agency no longer would refer complaints to the Missouri Human Rights Commission and the state faces losing some federal funding. If Missouri doesn’t undo the changes by March 2018, Greene said the agency will break its partnership with the state human rights commission through what’s called the Fair Housing Assistance Program.

Missouri residents still can file claims of federal housing discrimination with the Housing and Urban Development Department.

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