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Equal rights bill gets a hearing in Ohio House
Columbus--“No issues in our time are more divisive,” State Rep. Jon Peterson told a House committee, than those around “the standing of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community in our society.”
“But they are no more controversial than issues this nation struggled with when it faced, squarely and forcefully, the issue of discrimination based upon race,” Peterson continued.
The Delaware Republican joined Democratic Rep. Dan Stewart of Columbus before the House State Government and Elections Committee on December 4, giving sponsor testimony for the Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act.
The measure would prohibit discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations. Twenty other states have similar laws, 13 of which include gender identity.
Peterson and Stewart jointly sponsor the measure in the House. A companion Senate bill is sponsored by Cleveland Democrat Dale Miller. Both were introduced in March, and the Senate bill was heard in May by the Senate Judiciary and Civil Justice Committee, chaired by the measure’s Republican co-sponsor David Goodman of Columbus.
LGBT equality is “no more controversial than the issue of allowing women the right to vote one hundred years ago,” Peterson continued. “In each of those instances and others where those with developmental disabilities and those with mental illnesses have been discriminated against, this nation has responded by providing protections for those who are different than those in power and in positions of authority.”
“Significantly, those changes were accommodated in large part by legislative and judicial debate,” Peterson said.
“That is what this hearing is really about today. It is about the beginning of a dialogue between and among those who are in different places on this issue. It is about changing hearts and attitudes through thoughtful discussion and discernment,” Peterson concluded.
With only a few days left in the session, EHEA, as the bill is known, stands little chance of passing this year. However, the hearing was an important step toward moving it forward next when it is reintroduced next year.
Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman, whose group backs the measure, noted that many other states with similar laws had passed them only after lawmakers held hearings over several years. Hence, a session with no hearing is considered a strategic setback.
Stewart cited statistics for the committee, and told them what the bill does and does not do.
“Let’s be very clear: This has nothing to do with marriage,” said Stewart. “This is about discrimination in the workplace and housing. This is about the fact that in Ohio you can be fired from your job because your employer finds out that you are gay or lesbian and it’s about the fact that you can be denied an apartment for the same reason.”
“Injustice against one is injustice against everyone,” Stewart said.
A study completed by UCLA’s Williams Institute found that up to 17 percent of gay, lesbian, or bisexual people were fired or denied jobs based on their sexual orientation. Up to 28 percent were passed over for a promotion or given a negative workplace evaluation based on sexual orientation, and up to 40 percent were verbally or physically abused or had their work station vandalized, Stewart told his colleagues.
“These are statistics I am not proud to report,” said Stewart. “However, 66 percent of all Ohioans--two out of three people--say the law should protect people from this kind of discrimination.”
The 15-member committee has eight Republicans and seven Democrats. It is chaired by Republican David Daniels of Greenfield. Stewart is the ranking Democrat.
Since Democrats took control of the House in the November election, Stewart will likely chair the committee next year, with Democrats forming the panel’s majority. This makes it likely that the bill will have full hearings and move to the House floor--where it is expected to pass under the gavel of incoming Democratic House Speaker Armond Budish of Beachwood.
Term limits kept Peterson from running for re-election, so he will not return in January.
The Senate will remain under Republican control, making EHEA’s future there uncertain.
Peterson summed up by telling the committee the “legislative debate begins today, will continue in the next General Assembly and will go on until such time we recognize, by legislation if necessary, that being different is not a sin. It is a joy and a blessing to be celebrated by a committee, a community, a state and a nation.”