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April 6. 2012

Ohio LGBT equality bill gets a hearing in the House

Columbus--The Ohio House Committee on Commerce and Labor heard sponsor testimony on the Equal Housing and Employment Act on March 28. Backers hope the bill will have additional hearings.

The measure, known as EHEA, is sponsored by Reps. Ross McGregor of Springfield, a Republican, and openly lesbian Nickie Antonio of Lakewood, a Democrat.

It would bar discrimination by sexual orientation or gender identity in public and private employment, housing and public accommodations. Twenty-one states and 17 Ohio cities have similar laws in place, but there is no equivalent federal one.

Versions of the measure have been introduced in the Statehouse since 2003. EHEA passed the Democratic-controlled House in 2009 by a vote of 56 to 39, but did not clear the Senate. That year, McGregor co-sponsored it with former Rep. Dan Stewart of Columbus.

The Commerce and Labor committee has nine Republicans and six Democrats. Among the Republicans are McGregor and Terry Blair of Washington Township, who were among the five Republicans who voted for the bill in 2009. Also a member, however, is Lynn Wachtman, a lead opponent who repeats a common talking point that the bill violates anti-gays’ religious liberty.

With Republicans now in control of the House, William Batchelder of Medina serves as speaker.

Batchelder was a vocal opponent of the measure in 2009, and will be the one who determines how far the bill gets in this session.

With the votes of McGregor and Blair added to the six Democrats, all of whom are co-sponsors, there are enough votes to pass it out of the committee.

Equality Ohio director Ed Mullen hopes committee chair Joseph Uecker of Clermont County will hold more hearings and a vote.

Batchelder is the biggest obstacle right now,” Mullen said, adding that opposition among House Republicans is “softening,” compared to 2009, and there is a chance to pass the bill through the Senate.

“We have met with the legislative director of the governor’s office,” Mullen added, “and there are indications he will not oppose it.”

Mullen said that the bill might not move until after the November election, however.

Officially known as H.B. 335, EHEA was introduced September 27 with 25 sponsors, mostly Democrats but some Republicans.

“The hearing was a victory in and of itself, given the committee chair,” Mullen said.

Mullen believes that a reason why the Republican opposition is softening is growing support from the business community.

In 2009, once the Ohio Chamber of Commerce realized EHEA would likely pass the House, they attempted to load it up with a package of amendments to weaken the rights of anyone complaining of job discrimination, and other “tort reform” measures to weaken people who sue their employers.

With a parliamentary move, the Democrats dodged the Chamber’s “poison pill.” Had the amendments been included, they could not have supported the bill.

The Chamber and the National Federation of Independent Businesses opposed the measure without the amendments.

This time, however, the Chamber and NFIB will be introducing a stand-alone bill that is essentially their amendment package from 2009. This has allowed both business groups to remain neutral on EHEA and not penalize Republicans who vote for it.

Mullen credits McGregor for getting the business lobbies to change their strategy. But if their legislation passes, all non-discrimination laws will be weaker and more difficult to enforce.

Denied a single room at the inn

During her testimony, Antonio told the committee members what LGBT discrimination looks like in Ohio.

“One Ohio lesbian, Shari Hutchinson, claimed that she faced discrimination based on her sexual orientation while working first as a support officer and then an account clerk for the Child Support Enforcement Agency for Cuyahoga County, Ohio,” Antonio said.

“A Middlebranch, Ohio transgender man who was employed by a local factory was told not to use the men’s room but given access to a basement bathroom,” Antonio continued.

“The bathroom was inoperable, so he left the building during his break to use a gas station bathroom nearby. He was fired when he returned to work a few minutes late as a result of having to use an off-site bathroom,” Antonio said.

“In another example, an airport hotel refused to rent a single room to a gay couple stranded over night at the airport due to delays. The couple was forced to rent two rooms at $250 per room even though the advertised rate was $147 per room,” Antonio said.

“These are just a few examples of discrimination Ohioans have experienced. Some incidences are litigated, some are not. Most often, victims fear retribution or further victimization and loss of employment or housing and so suffer in silence or relocate if they are financially able,” Antonio concluded.

Nothing in EHEA inhibits business

McGregor spoke directly to the business interests of Republicans, beginning with a laundry list of 30 of Ohio’s largest private employers whose equal employment policy protects LGBT employees, which he followed with a similar list of cities and universities.

“By failing to implement this policy, Ohio stands to lose business,” McGregor said, citing the example of Utah, which was told by internet commerce firms that they would not create any more jobs in that state if LGBT employees could not be protected from discrimination by law.

“Ohio needs to be able to send the message that we welcome everyone, that we are open for business, and that companies can move here and be successful,” McGregor said.

“As an employer myself of a manufacturing company, I have first-hand knowledge and experience of the lengths employers must go for human resources,” McGregor said. “There is nothing in this bill that would inhibit me or my company, or prevent me or my company, from being successful. Nor is there anything in this bill that would hold me back from managing my company.”

“Fairness is not a partisan issue,” McGregor said.

“That is why in 2007, three Ohio Republican members of Congress joined with members of Ohio’s Democratic delegation to support the Federal Employment Nondiscrimination Act of 2007. Congressmen Tiberi, as well as former Congressmen Hobson and Pryce voted in favor of that similar legislation.”

Related stories

LGBT equality bill is reintroduced in the Statehouse  October 7, 2011

Equality bill passes Ohio House in historic vote  September 25, 2009

Equal rights bill makes a move in the Ohio Senate  March 21, 2008

State LGBT civil rights bill debuts  April 4, 2003

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