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March 14, 2008

Ohio lawmakers ponder
LGBT equality bill

Backing in both parties should help measure advance

Columbus--Ohio’s legislature is now considering a measure to prohibit discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations.

Two identical bills were introduced in the Ohio House and Senate on March 11. They have sponsors from both parties, and Gov. Ted Strickland has said he will sign the measure when it gets to his desk.

Proponents of the bills say that passage is most likely in the next legislative session, which begins next year. However, the current bill is expected to get farther than similar ones did in 2003 and 2005.

Neither of those measures saw committee hearings. This one is expected to be heard, which will educate legislators, focus the public eye on current discrimination, and set the stage for passage.

The new attention is made possible by the measure’s Republican support. The GOP controls both chambers of the legislature, and its members set the agenda. Before Strickland, a Democrat, was elected, they ignored most Democratic bills.

With Strickland and Democratic gains in the House, lawmakers agreed to a compromise allowing both parties to sponsor bills.

The Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act, House Bill 502, is sponsored jointly by Republican Jon Peterson of Delaware and Democrat Dan Stewart of Columbus, with 15 other co-sponsors.

Senate Bill 305’s lead sponsor is Democrat Dale Miller of Cleveland, who has introduced similar bills in previous years. It presently has nine other co-sponsors.

This version covers more

The first Ohio bills to protect employees from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation were introduced in 2003.

ThenRep. Dale Miller’s House bill included gender identity. The Senate version, sponsored by thenSen. Dan Brady of Cleveland, did not.

Miller put forth his bill again in 2005.

The version introduced last Tuesday cover more people and areas of discrimination, and also have more co-sponsorship and legislator support. Hence, hearings are nearly certain in the House and a possibility in the Senate--also a first.

The measure adds sexual orientation and gender identity or expression to Ohio’s anti-discrimination law, which now includes race, color, religion, sex, familial status, ancestry, disability, and national origin.

The law would apply to companies with four or more employees. Enforcement lies initially with the Ohio Civil Rights Commission, which is also responsible for rules in the Ohio Administrative Code. If the commission can’t resolve a case, it can also go to court.

‘What’s the big deal?’

Equality Ohio, the bill’s primary proponent, held a news conference March 11 with Miller, Stewart and Peterson.

“Ohio is among the most unwelcoming states in the nation for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people,” said Equality Ohio executive director Lynne Bowman. “Today, Ohio took a major step toward fairness and equality.”

Bowman cited a survey commissioned by Equality Ohio showing that two-thirds of Ohioans favor the legislation.

“Where you live should not determine the extent of your rights,” Miller said, noting that 15 Ohio cities already have similar measures.

Joining them was Jimmie Beall, who lost her teaching job in the London city schools in 2003, because she is lesbian.

In front of the group were tables stacked with 10,872 postcards signed by Ohio residents, urging lawmakers to pass the bill. Equality Ohio has collected them since last June, to give each of the 99 House members 100 cards from their district. Some districts had far more than that, others had fewer.

“It is known around the country that in Ohio you can be fired for being gay,” said Stewart.

Reporters peppered Miller with questions about the ability to enforce the law, since Ohio is an “at will” employment state.

“At will” means that an employee can be fired at any time for any reason, with little or no way to fight the termination. However, “at will” employers can’t break state laws against discrimination.

“It’s irrelevant,” Miller said, adding that other “at will” states enforce non-discrimination laws covering sexual orientation and gender identity or expression.

“We have to treat everyone equal based on sexual orientation,” said Stewart.

Peterson was questioned about his decision to sponsor the bill, and about how the Republicans would handle it. He also voted for the “defense of marriage act” in 2004, and was asked about his change of heart toward LGBT people.

Peterson told reporters the same thing he told Equality Ohio volunteer lobbyists in his office last May.

“The time is right,” said Peterson, adding that the Republican caucus had never seriously looked at issues of non-discrimination.

“I’m not making light of this,” Peterson said. “This is going to be hard work.”

Peterson spoke about his daughter Emily, who is in high school.

“ ‘What’s the big deal?’ ” with gay people, she asked him. She sees her LGBT classmates having more in common with her than not.

Peterson said his discussions with Emily have helped him to transform his thinking about LGBT people.

“We have to be focused on opening hearts and minds to cultural change,” Peterson said.

House hearings likely, Senate maybe

Peterson said that House Speaker Jon Husted will be “eminently fair” with the bill and will allow it to move as far as it has support.

“We define victory as passing the bill,” Peterson said. But he noted that getting full hearings without passage should not be viewed as a defeat.

Bowman has expressed confidence that the House bill will get full hearings, based on talks Equality Ohio has had with House leadership.

The Senate may be a little more difficult.

“We’re clearly making progress,” said Miller.

Miller and Goodman said that key Republican members of committees will be tough to sell on the measure, and that Senate President Bill Harris of Ashland will not be friendly to it unless there is substantial Republican support.

Goodman said Republicans in the Senate will be looking at any impact the bill would have on the business climate.

“It’s not good for me politically to co-sponsor this,” Goodman said.

“For me, it’s not just about the economy,” said Goodman. “It’s the right thing to do.”

Goodman compared LGBT discrimination to bias faced by his father and his law school classmates because they are Jewish.

“There were law firms they couldn’t join and people had to work to hide their being Jewish,” Goodman said.

“Discrimination is discrimination and it’s all wrong,” Goodman said, “and people with sensitivity to it need to step up and do something.”

Some possible issues

Two other senators who are generally supportive but did not co-sponsor the measure noted issues that might be raised in hearings.

Steve Stivers, a Columbus Republican who is also running for Congress, said he supports the bill generally but has a concern and is considering an amendment.

Stivers said he agrees that people should not be fired for being LGBT, but asked, “What about at an interview if someone volunteers information that the interviewer is not allowed to ask?”

Stivers said he has the same concern with all job non-discrimination laws when it comes to characteristics you can’t tell about someone by looking, including age, religion, and national origin.

“I don’t want to see a change in the power dynamic during the interview,” Stivers said, inferring that the potential employer should be able to keep the upper hand, even if the interviewee volunteers something they shouldn’t.

However, Stivers said he would work to see that the bill gets hearings.

“I want to be constructive and work through the bill,” Stivers said.

Democrat Lance Mason of Cleveland is also supportive, but described himself as “hesitant” to be a co-sponsor.

“If the bill comes up, I will vote for it, and I will support it in committee,” said Mason.

Mason is concerned that the new protections would compete for scarce resources with other protected classes.

However, Mason isn’t totally comfortable taking that position, either, and as he spoke with a reporter, changed his mind a couple of times.

“I’m thinking about this as we are talking about it,” Mason said.

“My hesitancy is not about whether to protect [LGBT people], but over whether or not it warrants a protected classification,” Mason said.

“On the other hand, there is discrimination, and all discrimination is wrong, and we should do something about it,” Mason said.

Attracting workers to Ohio

“Ohio is in a period of transition and transformation,” Peterson said. “The Ohio of tomorrow must welcome all persons and provide opportunities for all persons to succeed based on their character and ability, not their sexual orientation. This legislation represents a meaningful and significant step forward in ending discrimination which frustrates that objective.”

Besides Peterson and Stewart, the measure’s House co-sponsors, all Democrats, are Minority Leader Joyce Beatty of Columbus, Jennifer Brady of Westlake, Edna Brown of Toledo, Armond Budish of Beachwood, Ted Celeste of Grandview Heights, Kathleen Chandler of Kent, Mike Foley of Cleveland, Robert Hagan of Youngstown, Joseph Koziura of Lorain, Chris Redfern of Catawba Island Twp., Mike Skindell of Lakewood, Vernon Sykes of Akron, Matt Szollosi of Oregon, Peter Ujvagi of Toledo and Kenny Yuko of Richmond Heights.

Joining sponsor Miller in the Senate are Republican David Goodman of Columbus and Democrats John Boccieri of New Middletown, Capri Cafaro of Hubbard, Teresa Fedor of Toledo, Eric Kearney of Cincinnati, Minority Leader Ray Miller of Columbus, Sue Morano of Lorain, Tom Sawyer of Akron, and Shirley Smith of Cleveland.

Boccieri is also a candidate for Congress.

Neither chamber had assigned the bill to a committee by press time.

Twenty states and the District of Columbus prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation, and 13 of these, plus D.C., include gender identity.

In May, employees of the state of Ohio were protected by an executive order signed by Strickland.

 


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