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June 19, 2009

 

Equality bill passes Ohio House panel

Columbus--The Equal Housing and Employment Act passed the House State Government Committee as expected on June 17.

The measure was approved by an 8 to 5 vote. All of the panel’s Democrats voted for the measure, joined by Republican Cliff Hite of Findlay.

The bill now goes on to the full House, which is expected to vote on it next week.

More than a dozen amendments had been proposed to the act, which would outlaw discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity. They come mostly from Republican lawmakers and the Ohio Chamber of Commerce.

The committee passed only five changes approved by the bill’s sponsors, Democrat Dan Stewart of Columbus and Republican Ross McGregor of Springfield, and its main backer Equality Ohio.

“If I would have put everything the Chamber wanted in the bill, we would have gotten to 75 votes” in the full House, said Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman. “But I won’t do it.”

Sixty votes are expected when H.B. 176, as it is also known, goes to the full 99-member House.

Chamber lobbyist Tony Fiore said his group has been interested in the bill since 2006, but that interest heightened this year when it became clear that the bill will pass the House and has a chance to pass the Senate.

Fiore testified as an interested party on the bill during a June 10 committee hearing.

The Chamber says that they “do not support workplace harassment or discrimination,” and that they are “committed to encouraging fair and consistent employment practices and policies in hiring, training and compensation.”

However, their interest in EHEA appears to lie more in Fiore’s belief that the bill can be used to pass the Chamber’s broader agenda, than a concern for LGBT workers.

Fiore initially proposed seven amendments, including caps on damages paid to employees that are discriminated against, limits on access to Common Pleas Court and a weakened right to sue, and a general weakening of Ohio’s administrative process that precedes court actions.

Fiore testified that in order to get the Chamber’s support for EHEA, all of these provisions would need to be accepted.

Three of Fiore’s changes were included in the final bill.

A deal was struck earlier that the bill would contain Chamber amendments that don’t seem to threaten the measure’s narrow intent, in exchange for the group’s neutral position.

A “neutral” position means the Chamber will neither support nor oppose the measure, nor will votes for or against it appear on their scorecard.

Many legislators, especially Republicans, are very concerned with their Chamber scores on bills the group opposes or supports.

Had Equality Ohio and the sponsors not accepted any Chamber amendments, the Chamber would have opposed the bill, making it difficult to get any Republican votes. This would have dimmed its chances in the GOP-controlled Senate.

The Columbus Chamber of Commerce supports the bill without any changes.

Changes to gender ID provisions

The three Chamber amendments the committee approved include a minor change to the definition of “gender identity.”

The original definition uses the phrase “gender related identity, appearance, or expression . . .”

The amendment changes that to “gender related identity, appearance, or mannerisms . . .”

Fiore says that the change adds clarity. Bowman says neither the lawyers Equality Ohio is working with, nor the Human Rights Campaign, find any difference.

Another Chamber amendment appears to add more redundancy than clarity around shared dressing rooms and shower facilities, a statement that no employer needs to construct new facilities to accommodate transgender employees, and a statement that a transitioning employee cannot prohibit an employer from enforcing dress codes.

An employer’s abuse of the latter provision could lead to a federal Title VII violation under sex-stereotyping.

The final Chamber amendment prohibits employers and the Ohio Civil Rights Commission from collecting statistics on employees’ sexual orientation or gender expression.

The other Chamber amendments are not dead, however.

Fiore said he intends to bring them up again, including the ones rejected by the sponsors and Equality Ohio, when the bill gets to the Senate.

This could become a “poison pill” if majority Republicans attach the other ones to the Senate version, thereby creating a bill Democrats could not support.

Bowman acknowledged that possibility.

“But the Chamber has been trying to pass that agenda for ten years, and they couldn’t, even in two Republican-controlled chambers,” Bowman said. “What the Chamber wants may not have much support.”

Bowman believes that moving the Chamber to the neutral position on EHEA will give Senate Republicans enough political cover to vote their conscience.

No affirmative action or ‘quotas’

Republican Rep. David Daniels of Greenfield, who is the ranking minority member of the House State Government Committee, also offered amendments.

Initially, Daniels’ amendments added catch-phrases of the anti-LGBT establishment--which are not now legally recognized--including “special rights,” and “preferential treatment.”

Bowman admittedly wants Daniels’ support and didn’t see two of his amendments as deal-breakers once the anti-gay catch-phrases were removed.

Two of Daniels amendments were included in the final bill. One is a specific pronouncement that nothing in the bill requires employers to “implement quotas or affirmative action policies or programs, based on sexual orientation or gender identity,” though nothing else in the bill suggests that it does so.

The other is a more specific exemption for businesses with an anti-LGBT purpose.

The original bill only exempted churches and religious non-profits. The amendment added anti-gay for-profits, the only example of which is a religious bookstore.

Even with the amendments, Daniels voted against the bill, as did fellow Republicans John Adams of Sidney, Cheryl Grossman of Grove City, Dave Hall of Killbuck and Gerald Stebelton of Lancaster.

Voting for the measure were Democrats Ronald Gerberry of Austintown, Matt Lundy of Elyria, Robin Belcher of Cleveland, Dale Mallory of Cincinnati, Allan Sayre of Dover and Brian Williams of Akron; along with Stewart, the bill’s sponsor, and Republican Hite.

 


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