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Equality bill passes Ohio House in historic vote
Measure may have a harder time in Senate
Columbus--The Ohio House passed an LGBT equality bill on September 15, the first time any measure like it has come to a vote in either chamber of the General Assembly.
The Equal Housing and Employment Non-Discrimination Act passed 56 to 39. It was the first bill the House took up after returning from summer break.
The measure would bar discrimination by sexual orientation and gender identity in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations.
Governor Ted Strickland supports the bill and would sign it into law.
EHEA now moves to the Senate, where it may have a more difficult time.
Twenty-one states have similar laws on the books, 14 of which include gender identity. Sixteen Ohio cities and all but two of its public universities also have such measures.
The House vote ended months of behind-the-scenes drama and negotiation that included Democratic Party in-fighting over when the time was right for the vote and how it might impact future races in swing districts, plus Republicans working to keep the bill from coming to the floor at all.
The Ohio Chamber of Commerce also tried to add amendments to weaken Ohio’s existing anti-discrimination laws and advance their tort reform agenda, which would have led many Democrats to vote against a measure they otherwise supported.
In the end, House Speaker Armond Budish of Beachwood prevailed against conservatives in his own party and brought the measure to the floor, keeping his promise to the LGBT community last summer.
Every Democrat present voted for the bill, joined by five Republicans.
“This win would not have been possible without years of hard work and dedication to change from activists across Ohio,” said Equality Ohio director Lynne Bowman.
But Bowman also warned, “We’re just at the bottom of the third inning. The even harder work of passage in the Senate, and then possibly concurrence and conference committee, begins now.”
Senate leader sees no need for bill
Senate President Bill Harris of Ashland has made conflicting statement about his intentions with the bill.
In May spokesperson Maggie Ostrowski told the Gay People’s Chronicle that Harris will “refer it to a standing committee” once it arrives, and would comment no further.
A few days later Ostrowski updated the statement, after discussing it more with Harris.
“He said that he will consider HB 176 when it is in the Senate,” Ostrowski said.
Because of Senate procedures, the change was thought to be a small move by Harris to allow hearings and a conscience vote by Senate Republicans.
If all Senate Democrats vote for the bill, only five Republicans need to join them to pass it.
But after the bill cleared the House, Harris told the Columbus Dispatch that it would get a hearing, but that he doesn’t see a need for it.
“Other people are getting that evidence and information [of discrimination], but I am not,” Harris told the Dispatch. “I talk to business people all the time, and they’re saying it’s not an issue.”
The Chamber of Commerce intends to try for its amendments again in the Senate, where they will be taken more seriously and possibly be used to prevent a vote on the bill’s merit, or complicate conference negotiations.
The National Federation of Independent Business of Ohio, a close ally of the Chamber, is now weighing in against the bill. They are a constituency that Harris, a former Chevrolet and Cadillac dealer, takes seriously.
The federation’s legislative director Ty Pine told the Dispatch, “We recognize the reality that this is going to mean, quite potentially, additional lawsuits against employers, many of which will not have committed discrimination and will not have been found as such but will still have to pay exorbitant legal bills.”
The wrangling started even before the House reconvened, with two Republican members of the Rules and Reference Committee, Minority Whip John Adams of Shelby and Assistant Minority Whip Kris Jordan of Delaware, missing a September 14 meeting in an apparent attempt to keep the bill from coming to the floor at all. Both voted against it in the full House vote.
Ironically, Jordan replaced the bill’s former Republican sponsor Jon Peterson, who retired last year.
‘These are not special rights’
Democratic sponsor Dan Stewart of Columbus began the House floor debate by telling members that passing EHEA is “the moment history has brought us to.”
“This has nothing to do with gay marriage, and these are not special rights,” Stewart said.
Stewart reminded members that both Ohio’s House and Senate include sexual orientation and gender identity in their non-discrimination rules, as does the State of Ohio in an executive order signed by Governor Strickland in 2007.
Stewart recalled the testimony of Jimmie Beall, a teacher who was fired by a central Ohio school system for being lesbian.
“This is a gifted teacher who had received awards and I have become friends with this teacher over time,” Stewart continued.
“I understand how deeply she’s loved,” said Stewart. “I’m a Facebook friend and I see the messages from former and current students in her new position about how she helped guide them.”
“Why would we want to fire someone like that?” Stewart said. “It does happen. It did happen, and it will continue to happen unless we enact House Bill 176.”
The chamber chuckled when Stewart talked about the gay couple living across the street from him “who have been together longer than both of my marriages combined.”
Stewart said that at the time of the Declaration of Independence, “all men are created equal” had a different meaning than it does now.
“Of course, we were only talking about white men who own property, but over time we have adjusted and amended as we’ve made the changes necessary as we’ve grown as a nation,” Stewart said.
“I think it’s one of the great things about democracy that we can grow and amend and change,” Stewart said. “From time to time we have made positive changes to recognize injustices and discrimination.”
“We don’t have to agree with or be like someone else to afford them the same rights we have. We only have to understand that we hold these truths to be self-evident, and that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness includes the ability to make a living and to have a roof over your head.”
Dodging the Chamber’s amendment
Most of the 80 supporters wearing Equality Ohio buttons in the gallery were probably unaware of what played out before them after Stewart spoke.
Some of the attorneys in the Democratic caucus used a parliamentary maneuver to keep the Chamber of Commerce amendment from coming to a vote, which allowed party members to later vote unanimously for EHEA.
Assistant Majority Floor Leader and EHEA co-sponsor Tracy Maxwell Heard of Columbus offered an amendment, then allowed another co-sponsor, Mike Skindell of Lakewood, to speak about it.
Skindell described it as three relatively minor word changes to clarify some fine points. But they did something else that he didn’t mention. They changed the same text the Chamber amendment was aimed at, and House Rule 91 prohibits amending the same paragraph twice.
Heard’s amendment passed 51 to 43, after an impassioned speech from EHEA co-sponsor Tyrone Yates of Cincinnati, a Democrat, who called it “meaningful clarifications and improvements,” and urged passage of the bill.
“We should not stand idly by and wait for equality to come or wait for history to be made at some distant hour,” said Yates. “History has handed us an opportunity, a moment to continue on the path of equality and understanding.”
Minority Leader William Batchelder of Medina took issue with part of the amendment, perhaps understanding what was taking place. He asked for clarification, which Skindell offered.
All Democrats voted for the amendment, joined by Republican Cliff Hite of Findlay. All other Republicans, including the bill’s sponsor Ross McGregor of Springfield, voted against it.
With Heard’s amendment passed, Republican Gerald Stebelton of Lancaster offered the Chamber amendment but it was ruled out of order, despite protests by Assistant Minority Leader Louis Blessing of Cincinnati.
Democrats are fundamentally opposed to the Chamber’s tort reform, and most of them, according to multiple sources, would have voted EHEA down if Stebelton’s amendment had made it into the bill.
But it would have, if it had come to a vote. The House has a number of Democrats that narrowly defeated Republicans in swing districts who would lose their seats if the Chamber opposed them in the next election, which in turn would cause Democrats to lose control of the House.
The Chamber intended to score members’ votes on each amendment section separately, raising the stakes even higher.
At a Chamber legislative retreat earlier this month, Democrats were pulled aside and warned about what would happen if they voted against the amendment.
So, the only way to pass EHEA was to make sure the amendments never came up for a vote, and the Chamber of Commerce had nothing to score.
Wagner decries a ‘lifestyle’
With the Chamber amendments off the table, debate on the merit of EHEA continued.
The first to speak against the bill was Republican Jeff Wagner of Sycamore.
Wagner gained notoriety last spring when he publicized a letter he sent to an EHEA opponent in which he decried homosexuality, divorce and infidelity as responsible for “a continued collapse of the basic building block of society” and the cause of “sexually transmitted diseases, kids without parents, heartbroken people and I believe a host of mental and physical illnesses.”
For that, Wagner was publicly rebuked by 23 Democratic House members.
But Wagner repeated the claims during the EHEA debate--less than 50 feet from Tom Grote and Rick Neal of Columbus in the gallery, holding the five-month-old daughter they are adopting.
“When you get down to the root of H.B. 176, it is not really about people being denied rights to basic needs,” Wagner said. “It is about forcing the acceptance of a lifestyle than many disagree with.”
“I strongly believe that the sexual revolution this country has undergone in the past four decades has had a huge negative effect on our society and a devastating effect on our families,” Wagner said, listing living together before marriage, promiscuity, easy divorce and “the homosexual lifestyle” as the culprits.
“What has all that enlightenment gotten us,” Wagner asked rhetorically, then answered, “Today we have a lot more children without loving homes as a direct result of that revolution.”
“We should not use the machinery of state government to force people to accept lifestyles they do not believe in,” Wagner concluded.
‘This is the right thing to do’
GOP co-sponsor Ross McGregor was up next.
“We are given a short amount of time, sometimes even shorter than we’d like,” McGregor began, “and I have vowed that I am going to use every moment I have been given to do what’s right despite how unpopular that may be at times.”
McGregor, a business owner, addressed EHEA from that perspective.
“By creating an environment that is open to all, that is only going to help our economy here in Ohio,” McGregor said.
“What I find most telling and impressive are the numbers of your staff who come by my office, stuck their heads in and tell me this is the right thing to do.”
“The younger people in our state understand that diversity and acceptance is what Ohio needs to promote,” McGregor said.
“I really don’t care whether a guy’s wearing silk panties under his blue jeans if he’s showing up to the shop on time and acting as a member of our team,” McGregor said.
McGregor then read several messages he received from constituents against EHEA.
“Is there a provision for me to pound these queer people into next week?” he quoted one writer.
Then he read a pro-EHEA letter to the editor of his local newspaper, from a Christian pastor.
“There are people in Ohio who want nothing more than a good job, a place to live and to not feel threatened,” McGregor said, “and Ohio cannot afford to discriminate.”
Also speaking for passage of EHEA were Majority Leader Jennifer Garrison of Marietta, who is a candidate for Secretary of State, and Republican Peggy Lehner of Kettering.
Lehner objected to the parliamentary move that kept the Chamber amendments from consideration--a move that Republicans also used frequently when they were in the majority. She said that it was tempting for her to vote against the entire bill over it, except that EHEA is too important.
Lehner opposes abortion, and tied EHEA to the unalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“I have vigorously argued for years that to deny the right to life to unborn children violates one of the most important principles upon which our great nation was founded.”
“There are those who have taken the liberty of substituting the principle of unalienable rights with a principle of freedom of choice,” said Lehner. “I am not among those.”
“The Constitution does not speak of choice when it refers to life, but nor does it speak of choice when it addresses liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The Constitution does not grant this body the privilege of conferring liberty only on those we agree with, who live like us or believe what we believe in,” Lehner continued.
Lehner said EHEA does a good job of protecting the natural rights of all citizens.
Republican Lynn Wachtmann of Napoleon then spoke against EHEA, repeating a talking point that the bill violates anti-gays’ religious liberty.
“Shame on you for bringing this bill up and having no respect for those of religion who disagree with these issues,” Wachtmann said.
“This bill is about punishing those who do not agree with your beliefs,” Wachtmann said.
Republican Kevin Bacon of Worthington wanted to “score a big win for the business world” and protested that the Chamber amendments were scrapped.
Republican Matt Huffman of Lima said EHEA is not the same as granting voting rights.
“It’s about taking away rights of a business owner or someone who owns a house,” said Huffman.
Huffman, an attorney, said he has been asked to take a number of these cases, but said that the people were all really fired and denied housing for other reasons, inferring that the owners have a fundamental right to do it.
“This is about taking rights away from people,” Huffman said.
Democrat John Carney of Columbus countered Wachtmann and Huffman by saying that discrimination is not a right.
After an hour and nine minutes of debate, EHEA passed to applause from the gallery.
The bill’s title was amended to add nine new co-sponsors, all Democrats.
In the end, five Republicans voted for the bill, well short of McGregor’s goal of 10 to 12.
Republicans joining McGregor were Hite, Lehner, Matthew Dolan of Novelty, and Terry Blair of Washington Township.
The lack of Republican support may give the Senate an excuse to dismiss the measure. However, House Democrats have said they are willing to negotiate with Senate Republicans to pass EHEA in exchange for something they want, should the opportunity arise.
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