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June 5, 2009

 

Equality bill may have tougher time in House

Columbus--There may be less support than anticipated for an LGBT equal rights bill in the Ohio House.

The Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act would bar discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations.

It was expected to pass the House easily when it was re-introduced last month by Democrat Dan Stewart of Columbus and Republican Ross McGregor of Springfield.

But there appears to be more resistance among majority Democrats than anticipated.

Last fall’s election put 53 Democrats and 46 Republicans in the Ohio House. With control of the agenda for the first time in 14 years, the more LGBT-affirming Democrats seemed poised to pass the bill quickly.

House Speaker Armond Budish of Beachwood told a group of LGBT volunteer lobbyists on May 13 that he intended to move the measure quickly.

Budish has kept his word, with sponsor testimony heard in the State Government Committee on May 27, and proponent testimony scheduled for June 3.

However, according to a message sent to Equality Ohio’s leadership, there are only 40 certain votes for the bill. The LGBT political group is the measure’s primary backer.

The bill has only one other Republican co-sponsor, Terry Blair of Washington Township. This means there is a maximum of 38 Democrats committed to passing it.

The measure needs 50 votes to pass the House.

The leadership message indicates that there are 22 more possible “yes” votes in the House.

Changes improve Senate chances

The Senate’s conservative president, Republican Bill Harris of Ashland, has changed his position on EHEA since he learned about two changes made since the bill appeared in the Senate last session.

The changes include an exemption for religious organizations and exemption for employers with fewer than 15 workers.

This matches the proposed federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, but makes sexual orientation and gender identity different from the other classes in Ohio’s current anti-bias laws.

Race, color, religion, national origin, age, handicap and ancestry are presently covered by laws that extend to employers with as few as four people working.

It is believed that the bill has a chance to pass the Senate if Harris allows his caucus members to vote their conscience, rather than a party line vote against it. That is, if he lets it get to the floor for consideration at all.

When asked of his intention earlier, Harris’ spokesperson Maggie Ostrowski was tight-lipped, giving the standard answer for all bills sent to the Senate by the House.

Ostrowski said Harris would “refer it to a standing committee” once it arrives, but would comment no further.

A few days later Ostrowski updated the statement, having discussed it more with Harris.

Ostrowski said Harris had not been aware of the changes that had been made in the version of the bill that is currently pending in the Ohio House.

“He said that he will consider HB 176 when it is in the Senate,” Ostrowski said.

Sponsor testimony

“There is no more controversial issue being debated in this nation today that that of the issue of equal rights for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals,” McGregor told the House State Government Committee on May 27.

“However in my view, the debate surrounding this legislation is not an issue of morality. Representative Stewart and I are not asking you to vote in support of a lifestyle that you may or may not agree with. We stand before you today to vote in support of fairness and equality. We stand before you today to vote against discrimination.”

“House Bill 176’s sole intention is to protect basic constitutional rights when it comes to housing, employment and public accommodation, just as we already prevent discrimination of individuals based on religious affiliation,” McGregor continued.

Stewart made it clear to the committee that the bill has nothing to do with marriage.

“This is about discrimination in the work place housing, and with public accommodations,” Stewart said. “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.”

“On May 17, 2007, Governor Strickland issued an executive order prohibiting the discrimination of state workers from on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity,” Stewart noted.

“H.B. 176 is a natural extension and would provide all Ohio citizens with the protection state employees are currently afforded. At this time, 20 states and over 140 cities and counties, including 16 here in Ohio, have enacted bans similar to H.B. 176.”

“During these tough economic times, we should not give our young people more incentive to leave Ohio,” Stewart said.

“According to Equality Ohio and the Human Rights Campaign, our state ranks near the top of gay-unfriendly states in the nation,” Stewart concluded. “This legislation is needed not only to attract and retain young gay entrepreneurs, but also the straight ones who appreciate the vibrancy of a diverse community.”

Six witnesses are expected to testify before the committee on June 3. They are Ohio Civil Rights Commission executive director Michael Payton; Bishop Bruce Ough of the United Methodist Church’s Western Ohio Conference; Springfield mayor Warren Copeland; Miami Valley Fair Housing Coalition executive director Jim McCarthy; Ron Templin of Cardinal Health; and educator Jimmie Beall.

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