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MAY 22, 2009

Anti-bias bill may pass Ohio House easily

Senate will be more difficult

Columbus--A measure to prohibit discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity or expression has been reintroduced in the Ohio House, where it is expected to pass quickly.

Its future in the Senate is far less certain.

The bill, dubbed H.R. 176, the Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act, covers public and private employment, housing and public accommodations. It was introduced jointly on May 12 by Democrat Dan Stewart of Columbus and Republican Ross McGregor of Springfield, and has 25 cosponsors in both parties.

Last year, a similar bill had only 17 cosponsors in the 99-member House. Its companion in the Senate had 12. In that session, both chambers were controlled by Republicans.

This year, the House is controlled by Democrats, some of whose campaigns were helped by the LGBT community and Equality Ohio, the bill’s chief advocate.

House Speaker Armond Budish of Beachwood supports the bill and told Equality Ohio members at a reception, “We’re trying to push [for passage] as much as we can and as fast as we can.”

Budish expects passage will require some Republican support. GOP co-sponsor McGregor said he expects to bring along a few members of his caucus.

This year’s version of the bill, known as EHEA, has two differences from earlier ones to dampen opposition, according to Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman.

One is an exemption for religious organizations.

The other is an 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 covered by laws that extend to employers with as few as four people working.

The bill was quickly referred to the 13-member State Government Committee chaired by Austintown Democrat Ronald Gerberry. Stewart is on the committee, as are cosponsors Dale Mallory of Cincinnati, Vernon Sykes and Brian Williams of Akron, all Democrats.

The remaining Democratic sponsors are Mike Skindell of Lakewood, Ted Celeste of Upper Arlington, Tom Letson of Warren, Nancy Garland of Gahanna, Mike Foley of Cleveland, Kenny Yuko of Euclid, Tracy Maxwell Heard of Columbus, Marian Harris of Westerville, Sandra Williams of Cleveland, Sandra Harwood of Niles, John Patrick Carney of Clintonville, Kathleen Chandler of Kent, Barbara Boyd of Cleveland Heights, Robert Hagan of Youngstown, Peter Ujvagi of Toledo, Joseph Koziura of Lorain, Roland Winburn of Dayton, Clayton Luckie of Dayton, Tyrone Yates of Cincinnati, Edna Brown of Toledo and Denise Driehaus of Cincinnati.

Sponsor Terry Blair of Washington Township is a Republican.

Support for the bill, especially among Democrats, goes beyond the sponsors.

“My district is very conservative, so I’m not a sponsor,” said Jay Goyal of Mansfield. “But I support it. It’s the right thing to do.”

Stephen Slesnick of Canton intended to be a sponsor, but his name did not make the list.

“There was simply a mix up, and a few members who cosponsored were not submitted, most likely due to an abundance of finance caucuses during the budget,” Slesnick said. He intends to add his name when the measure reaches the House floor.

Since EHEA is not about marriage, Harwood is a sponsor although she is one of a few Democrats who crossed party lines in 2004 to vote for the so-called “defense of marriage act.”

Harwood said nothing has changed with her attitudes about LGBT people.

“I have never been against people having equal rights,” Harwood said, adding that she voted for DOMA to “protect the history and tradition of marriage.”

“I have a family member in a civil union,” Harwood said, “and I have no problem with them.”

Harwood, an attorney, believes that DOMA permits Ohio to have civil unions, though at the time of the vote, the bill’s drafter David Langdon and its sponsor, then-Rep. Bill Seitz, testified that the section denying an otherwise undefined “statutory benefits of legal marriage” was intended to stop civil unions.

Other House Democrats will probably oppose the measure, though not many.

Jennifer Garrison of Marietta is likely to be among that group.

Garrison defeated Nancy Hollister, the only Republican who voted against DOMA, by gay-baiting her.

The vote was considered courageous for Hollister.

Garrison sent out mailings that read, “If you believe marriage is between one man and one woman, there’s something you should know about Nancy Hollister.”

On the other side, the card said, “DOMA was enacted precisely to protect Ohioans from having to accept ‘marriages’ or ‘unions’ entered into in other states. Despite the value of DOMA, Nancy Hollister voted against it. Jennifer Garrison believes marriage is between one man and one woman and will fight to protect our values.”

In 2006 as a member of the House Education Committee, Garrison helped to kill an amendment that would have explicitly required Ohio’s schools to protect students from bullying for their sexual orientation or gender identity.

The bill passed without the LGBT protections.

Garrison, an attorney who is now the Majority Floor Leader, second in rank to the Speaker, opposed EHEA last session on the belief that it is wrong to single out classes of people for protection. But she does not express any objection to other classes, including race, religion and national origin, having protection.

Garrison told the Equality Ohio lobbying group who visited her that she believes “no one should be discriminated against,” adding, “I will read the bill.”

Garrison also said she would see what kind of support the bill gets in committee before deciding how she will vote.

The bill’s House Republican co-sponsor, Ross McGregor said he will be working on Senate Republicans, too.

Republicans control the Senate, so a party line vote against EHEA would stop it, even with an affirmative vote by its Republican sponsor in the last session, Sen. David Goodman of Columbus.

If Senate president Bill Harris allows his caucus to vote their conscience, the measure has a better chance, as Senate Democrats will likely all vote for the bill.

The bill will come before the Senate from the House. A strategic decision was made not to have a Senate sponsor, according to Bowman.

Harris is not tipping his intentions.

Spokesperson Maggie Ostrowski said Harris will “refer it to a standing committee” once it arrives, and would comment no further.

Senator Bill Seitz of Cincinnati, who sponsored DOMA, is an influential Republican in the chamber.

In a written statement, Seitz said, “We will look at the bill when and if it reaches the Senate. Prior bills on this subject were overbroad and created too many opportunities for litigation.”

Asked to clarify what he meant by “prior bills on this subject,” Seitz said “Sen. Dale Miller’s bill—Senate Bill 305—from the last General Assembly.”

That was last year’s version of the same EHEA bill.

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