This week, the Legislature will consider the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act, which would update our state’s human rights statute by adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of characteristics protected from discrimination. For reasons of both principle and practicality, I strongly support this legislation.
The question of principle is simple: whether in Missouri it is OK to discriminate against people because of who they are. For people of color and for women, the answer is no. It is against the law to fire a person or to deny an apartment because he is black or she is female. Many people think that this is and should be equally the case for gays and lesbians. It is not. For gay citizens of our state, there is no such protection under state and federal law.
Over the course of my career, I’ve had a number of talented staff members and colleagues who are gay or lesbian, several of whom have served as my most trusted advisers. From them and others, I’ve learned a great deal. I know that one’s sexual orientation is a deeply ingrained characteristic. No one wakes up in the morning and says, “Hey, I’ve just decided to be gay.” It’s simply part of who people are. And I also know that the aspirations of the gay people I have known are the same as everyone else’s: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
The founding principle of America is that all of us are created equal. Two key words in the Declaration of Independence are “created” and “equal.” When the subject is how we are created, our innate make-up, we are all the same. America’s history has been the struggle to make good on this founding principle, for race, for gender and now for sexual orientation. The principle of equality is so basically American that it alone is sufficient to compel passage of MONA.
But there is a practical consideration as well. It concerns our economic future. In my years in office and since, I’ve endeavored to ensure that Missouri is a welcoming place for the best and brightest. Supporting diversity in business not only improves the working environment, but it grows the bottom line. When businesses embrace diversity, they find greater honesty, teamwork, and respect among employees. Well-motivated and productive employees are essential for any business to succeed. That’s why more than 80 percent of Fortune 500 corporations have already voluntarily adopted nondiscrimination policies, including Missouri-based companies like Monsanto and Anheuser-Busch.
Research shows that municipalities and states that enact policies protecting gay and lesbian people are more attractive to young entrepreneurs — gay or straight — who are looking for an open, thriving, creative place to locate or launch their businesses. Some of Missouri’s strongest competitors — states like Illinois, Colorado and Minnesota — have enacted such protections. It’s time for Missouri to join them.
Missouri’s business sector recognizes the importance of this legislation and has stepped up its support. More than 500 businesses, large and small, including major Missouri employers like Monsanto, Express Scripts, H&R Block and Sprint, all back this legislation, as does my law firm, Bryan Cave. It makes Missouri a desirable place to build a business and it helps employers recruit top talent.
Enactment of MONA would be good for Missouri’s economic future. But even more important, it would be in the best tradition of America.
John C. Danforth is a former Missouri attorney general and a former U.S. senator and ambassador. He is a partner at Bryan Cave in St. Louis.