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Top Stories This Week in the Chronicle.
September 21, 2007

Equality act delayed until
next year

Columbus--An Ohio LGBT anti-discrimination bill that was set to be introduced this month will now be delayed until next March at the earliest.

The measure, dubbed the Equal Housing and Employment Act, would add sexual orientation and gender identity wherever other protected classes are now listed in the Ohio Revised Code, such as race, religion, and national origin.

It will be similar to bills introduced in 2003 and 2005 by then-State Rep. Dale Miller, a Cleveland Democrat who is now in the Ohio Senate.

Initially, the measure was to have been introduced when the House returned from summer recess on September 11. But that timetable has changed, says State Rep. Dan Stewart of Columbus, who is expected to be its sponsor, and the bill’s main advocacy group Equality Ohio.

The delay will allow proponents to find sponsors for the measure in both parties.

“It’s not worth going now without bipartisan sponsorship,” said Equality Ohio director of education and public policy Bo Shuff.

“This is not a change in tactics,” he added. “The goal of this session is hearings in both chambers, not passage.”

Such hearings would be a greater advance than the measure has ever gotten in the legislature, and would possibly poise it for passage after 2008.

In 2004, gay Cleveland employment attorney Timothy Downing testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Civil Law in favor of an early LGBT equal rights bill proposed by then-State Sen. Dan Brady, also of Cleveland.

Downing’s appearance, however, remains the only proponent testimony ever given on the matter. Anti-LGBT Republican leaders in both chambers have let the bills die without movement every other time.

The election of 2006 created an opportunity when Democrats picked up seats in both chambers as well as the governor’s office.

A deal was struck in the House that allows bills to have two main sponsors, who can be from both parties.

Since Republicans still control both chambers and the agenda, the joint sponsorships give Democrats a chance to team with a Republican and have legislation considered, where it was previously ignored.

Stewart, a Columbus Democrat, agreed to carry the Equal Housing and Employment Act in the House and was seeking a Republican joint sponsor. Stewart co-sponsored the 2003 and 2005 bills sponsored by Miller.

In May, Stewart believed that State Rep. Jon Peterson of Delaware would jointly sponsor the bill. Though he voted for DOMA, the “defense of marriage act,” Peterson is generally seen as a socially moderate Republican, who, more importantly, had begun to change his beliefs about LGBT equality.

During Equality Ohio’s lobbying day that month, Peterson told constituent lobbyists, “This is not a healthy Ohio when it comes to equal rights.”

“Your issues need a voice in this caucus, and I will try to be that,” he added.

But so far, Peterson has not committed to sponsorship, according to both Shuff and Stewart.

Peterson could not be reached for comment.

Shuff also said that in order to have hearings in the Senate, where there are no joint sponsorships, the measure will need a Republican co-sponsor. None have yet been identified as willing.

Stewart said he would like to see an African-American Democrat replace him as sponsor in order to help get past anticipated resistance from conservative black religious leaders. So far, none have come forward.

Shuff said Equality Ohio has witnesses lined up to testify who have been discriminated against on the job or in housing.

The group will also hold town hall meetings in key legislative districts, including those of newly-elected moderate Republicans Kevin Bacon of Minerva Park and Josh Mandel of Lyndhurst, and that of House Speaker Jon Husted of Kettering. The three represent areas near Columbus, Cleveland and Dayton, respectively.

“Even those on the wrong side of the DOMA vote see this differently,” said Stewart, expressing cautious optimism echoed by Shuff.

“The tone of the 2008 campaign will be different,” Shuff said. “This won’t be a wedge issue, and we should be able to talk about the issues.”

Shuff does not see the legislative calendar to be a problem, even with the delay.

“We will get it introduced before the deadline making it too late for hearings,” Shuff said.

Stewart said the bill won’t be crowded out by state’s capital budget, which is what lawmakers will be working on at that time. The measure, which must be approved by June 30, is less contentious than the two-year operating budget.

“This legislature comes back after its summer recess,” said Shuff, “and a ton of work gets done in a lame duck session, as we have seen.”

Shuff dismissed concerns that electoral politics may get in the way of the bill. Next year is an election year for all House members and a third of Senate members.

“It may also be an opportunity for more middle-of-the-road members from both parties to get more involved,” Shuff concluded.

Shuff said that the draft legislation being circulated among legislators has no exemptions for small businesses or religious organizations.

“There might be room for conversation there,” Shuff said. “But we will withdraw our support if the transgender piece is pulled.”



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