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May 16, 2008

Equality bill is a civil rights and business issue, senators are told

Columbus--“Basic protections should not depend on where you live or what company you work for,” Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman told an Ohio Senate panel Wednesday. “And make no mistake. A decision by this body to not pass this bill would be explicit permission to discriminate.”

The bill she was discussing is the Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would prohibit discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations.

The May 13 hearing of the Senate Judiciary and Civil Justice Committee was the first time such testimony has been heard in the Statehouse on an LGBT equal rights bill. Similar bills were introduced in 2003 and 2005 but saw little action.

The measure, also known as EHEA, was introduced in March by Sen. Dale Miller of Cleveland, a Democrat who sponsored earlier versions as a member of the House.

The nine-member committee is chaired by Republican David Goodman of Columbus, who is also a co-sponsor.

Miller was pleased with Goodman’s decision to hear proponents and opponents at the same time. This way, both sides will have been heard whether or not there are additional hearings, and the committee can act on the bill.

“It’s farther along this way,” said Miller. “I have been here long enough to have seen things pass [out of committee] this way.”

Goodman said he may be able to schedule additional hearings when the Senate returns from its three-week recess.

He added that even though the majority of committee members support the bill, the majority of Republicans on the panel don’t.

“That means you typically don’t move a bill,” said Goodman. “This is no different process-wise than any other bill.”

One other Republican on the panel supports the measure, Steve Stivers of Columbus, who is running for Congress.

The rest of the committee Republicans, Kirk Schuring of Canton--also running for Congress--Steve Buehrer of Delta, Keith Faber of Celina and Bill Seitz of Cincinnati, are generally hostile to LGBT people and are not expected to support the bill.

Two of the committee’s Democrats, Eric Kearney of Cincinnati and Teresa Fedor of Toledo, are also co-sponsors. The third, Lance Mason of Cleveland, is not a co-sponsor due to some questions, but supports the measure and says he would vote for it in committee and on the floor.

The companion bill in the House was introduced by Republican Jon Peterson of Delaware and Democrat Dan Stewart of Columbus. It has not moved.

All the committee members except Stivers were present for the May 13 hearing.

The proponents: Judge by character

“Not passing this bill is a statement that in Ohio, our lawmakers don’t believe that everyone should be judged based on the strength of their character, the performance of their work or their contribution to their community,” Bowman continued. “Rather, you would be saying that in Ohio, the thing that trumps everything, the thing that will legally allow you to lose your job, permit you to be kicked out of restaurants, or deny you a place to live, is the gender of the person you love.”

Buehrer asked Bowman if the bill requires prospective employers to ask the sexual orientation of those they interview “so as to avoid any confusion.”

“No,” Bowman answered,  the bill only requires that employers cannot discriminate.

“How far would you go in creating a protected class?” asked Buehrer.

“It’s not my charge to decide what other classes should be added,” replied Bowman, “only to see that there is no discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.”

Ohio anti-discrimination law presently includes race, color, religion, sex, familial status, ancestry, disability, and national origin.

Buehrer said when so many protected classes are created, employers are in “proverbial fear” of not having all the employees on the checklist.

“Where do you draw the line?” asked Buehrer.

“I don’t know where the line is,” said Bowman. “What I know is that employers should be able to choose employees based on qualifications, not discrimination based on sexual orientation.

Attracting the best and brightest

Jason Lansdale of Cleveland testified on behalf of the Cleveland Clinic.

Lansdale, who is gay, said the Clinic attracts, retains and promotes its best and brightest “in a variety of ways” including creating employee advisory groups and “publicly supporting legislation like [EHEA].”

“Is there any business reaction to support or opposition to this bill?” asked Fedor.

Lansdale responded that LGBT people tend to be brand-loyal and support businesses who see diversity as an imperative.

Goodman asked if the Cleveland Clinic, the second largest employer in the state, has had difficulty recruiting qualified LGBT people due to Ohio law.

“Yes,” replied Lansdale. “There is a perception that Ohio does not protect LGBT people.”

“Is this a civil rights issue?” asked Fedor.

“Yes, and also a business one,” Lansdale said.

Barbara Richards of Dublin testified that her gay son was offered jobs in Ohio law firms, but chose one in Chicago instead.

“John’s decision to take a job in Chicago instead of Columbus was in no small part influenced by the fact that as a gay man he was not afforded many of the basic rights that most of our children have as citizens of the state,” said Richards.

Illinois is one of 13 states that include sexual orientation and gender identity in their anti-bias laws. Seven more have measures covering sexual orientation only.

Richards described her son as a summa cum laude graduate from Vanderbilt  University and a cum laude graduate of the University of Pennsylvania Law School who has served internships with the Bush White House and the Ohio Attorney General and who did an externship for Legal Aid of Tennessee before clerking for U.S. District Court Judge Gregory Frost.

Goodman indicated that he knows Richards and her children.

Fedor, a former teacher, said that statistics show that one in nine students in any classroom “have a different sexual orientation.”

“Are we raising our kids to discriminate?” asked Fedor.

“If they just look at the law, yes,” answered Richards.

‘It simply makes us equal under God’

“I am not here today to debate the biblical teachings regarding homosexuality, nor do I believe it necessary to engage in such a discussion when referring to this legislation,” testified Rev. Stephen Moulton, a Presbyterian minister from Bowling Green.

“This measure does not ask anyone to condone or accept another person for being gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender any more than a prohibition against religious discrimination suggests that we somehow have to condone or accept the correctness of someone’s faith decision.”

“God calls me to honor and respect the rights of others to believe differently than I do,” Moulton continued, “It does not make any of us necessarily right or wrong. It simply makes us equal under God.”

“For those of us who believe in God, [passing this legislation] is not only the loving thing to do, but also the right and only thing to do.”

Karen Days, president of the Columbus Coalition Against Family Violence and chair of the United Way’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee testified that EHEA embodies her agency’s commitment to inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity.

“The fact that this fundamental commitment to inclusion and human decency is not upheld by state policies that protect basic human rights is troubling and disheartening,” Days said.

Days talked about the census the United Way conducted to learn about the central Ohio LGBT community.

“Almost two of every three participants who stated they experienced discrimination reported discriminatory practices at work,” Days said.

Days said that finding complements similar findings by UCLA’s Williams Institute last year that more than a quarter of LGBT people were denied a promotion or fired based on their sexual orientation, and 40 percent reported being verbally or physically abused or had their workplace vandalized.

The League of Women Voters of Ohio submitted written testimony calling EHEA an effort of government to be inclusive, fair and accountable in the fight to resist discrimination and inequity.

The ACLU also released a written statement supporting the bill.

The opponents: ‘Fascism’

Carolyn Blow of Xenia called EHEA “fascism,” and said it “forces people to be associated or yoked with people who are into homosexuality and or who cross dress, and or at the least, it forces people to promote a lifestyle that in many religions is antithetical to the doctrines of their faith.”

“For the state to dictate what one’s religion must involve or what one must accept against his conscience is tyranny.”

“This bill forces Ohioans to accept and promote a deviant behavior,” said Blow. “That characteristic is different from all the others against which discrimination is banned in current law.”

“Regardless of how people who practice homosexuality think they are oriented, what they do is not normal,” said Blow also claiming “much higher rates of antisocial behaviors, molestations and other criminal acts that [homosexuals] commit in comparison to others.”

None of the senators questioned Blow.

Mission America president Linda Harvey agreed with Blow that EHEA is fascism, and continued that it “seeks to exalt homosexual behavior.”

“If this law is passed, we can expect many more openly homosexual and cross dressing teachers in our public schools and day care centers,” Harvey testified. “This will create a hostile environment for people who hold traditional values. We’re likely to have many more school situations where homosexuality becomes noble and Christian values are discarded or mocked.”

Harvey told the committee of afair housing ordinance passed by Wooster in 1990 that included sexual orientation which was repealed by voters the same year.

“That’s the response you might expect if you pass this,” Harvey testified.

Later, Harvey was asked about that.

“I’m not planning to lead the effort, but someone might,” Harvey said.

Gays are doing well enough

Citizens for Community Values governmental affairs director Barry Sheets testified that EHEA isn’t needed because Ohio’s LGBT people are doing well enough without it.

“Under the legislation, a person’s expression of their personal sexual behavior would be given the same force of law in determining unlawful discrimination as one’s race, gender or national origin,” Sheets said, “the latter all characteristics which are immutable in nature and have been recognized by the courts as having been stigmatized by economic disenfranchisement and powerlessness.”

Sheets also pointed to the Williams Institute study as evidence that same-sex-attracted individuals are more likely to be employed than married ones.

He also said that same-sex couples have higher incomes and are more likely to hold professional or management level jobs.

Sheets also said that only ten states in the country have more companies scoring 100 percent on the Human Rights Campaign’s Corporate Equality Index than Ohio.

By this time, only Sens. Goodman and Schuring remained.

CCV president for public policy David Miller continued Sheets’ claim that LGBT people are better off economically than the rest of the population, making EHEA an unnecessary burden on businesses.

“By creating new civil rights protections based on someone’s actual or perceived heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, or transgenderism, we are actually inhibiting business, and we are running counter to more than a half-century of civil rights laws, thereby inflicting gross inequality upon traditionally protected classes,” Miller testified.

Fired for expressing beliefs

“In an attempt to curtail discrimination based upon someone’s sexual expression, religious discrimination often erupts within the workplace,” Miller continued.

“Employees may be terminated for expressing their religious beliefs in the workplace and be subject to discrimination.”

Miller laid out three criteria for creating protected classes, which he said are the ones recognized by courts: immutable characteristic, economic disenfranchisement, and political powerlessness.

Miller said homosexuality doesn’t qualify as any of the three.

Goodman, who is Jewish, has talked extensively to reporters about his father’s experience with religious discrimination when he graduated from law school. He says it is the main reason why he is co-sponsoring EHEA.

He seized on Miller’s criteria.

“Would that have been the right argument to make to my father?”

Miller did not directly answer the question. Instead, he gave reasons why government might need to step in if there is economic disparity.

“Whether your father met all of these, I don’t know the circumstance,” Miller said.

Religion is not immutable

Later, Miller told a reporter that religion, though not an immutable characteristic, should be a protected class because “it’s in the Constitution.”

“Sexual orientation is not in the Constitution,” Miller said.

Asked if there is discrimination based on sexual orientation, Miller said, “There very well may be. I have heard stories.”

“But I will never agree that sexual orientation is immutable,” Miller said.

Ohio Christian Alliance president Chris Long submitted written testimony in opposition to EHEA.

Goodman said he intends to treat EHEA like he treats all measures before his committee.

“I’m trying hard to treat it like any other bill that comes through,” Goodman said. “I’m going to try to get it as much in front of the committee as I can.”

“Some bills, especially Democrats’ bills, get sponsor testimony, and that’s all. This one merits hearings and potentially more,” Goodman concluded.

 


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