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Messenger: Lawmakers try to turn back the clock on gay rights

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People protest outside the North Carolina Executive Mansion in Raleigh, N.C., Thursday, March 24, 2016. North Carolina legislators decided to rein in local governments by approving a bill Wednesday that prevents cities and counties from passing their own anti-discrimination rules. North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory later signed the legislation, which dealt a blow to the LGBT movement after success with protections in cities across the country. (AP Photo/Emery P. Dalesio)


UPDATE: An earlier version of this column improperly stated the procedure for SJR 39 to end up on the Missouri ballot. 

I owe much of my understanding of gay and lesbian issues to a visit with Gene and Barbara Sternberg in 1992.

The Sternbergs were royalty in Evergreen, the small mountain town west of Denver where I was executive editor of the weekly Canyon Courier newspaper. Gene, a Jewish, Czech-born architect who escaped his Nazi-occupied homeland with a scholarship to the University of London’s Bartlett School of Architecture, was a renowned designer of public buildings in the region, from hospitals to high schools. His wife, Barbara, was an author and art lover. They were respected and influential.

During that year, Colorado was embroiled in a heated campaign over gay rights. Several cities in the state, including Denver and Aspen, had passed ordinances protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination, much like the ones St. Louis and many cities in the region have passed in recent years. The answer to those ordinances from some political corners was Amendment 2, which sought to ban local laws protecting the civil rights of gays.

Some time during that campaign, the Sternbergs came to my office to talk about two of their six grown children. They were gay. When they came out to their parents, the Sternbergs struggled with the news, as I recall. But they loved their kids. They studied the issue. They joined Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays, now known as PFLAG, and found neighbors and friends who had been through their own, similar experience. They couldn’t imagine living in a world that treated their own children as second- class citizens.

So they were publicly joining the movement against Amendment 2. They asked me to join them and I did, writing columns and editorials about the hateful, discriminatory proposal.

Times were different then. This was long before same-sex marriage was even on the horizon. The debate over Amendment 2 was simple. Are our gay neighbors full citizens of the nation or aren’t they?

Colorado voters said they were not. Amendment 2 passed overwhelmingly.

Four years later, the U.S. Supreme Court tossed Amendment 2 on the trash heap of America’s history of discrimination, ruling that it violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Two decades later, state lawmakers in Missouri and points south are trying to relitigate the issue.

Last week, the North Carolina legislature passed, and its governor signed, a sweeping bill that stops cities from protecting its gay, lesbian and transgender residents from discrimination. The bill was presented as an emergency response to Charlotte’s passage of an ordinance protecting the right of transgender people to use the restroom of the sex they identify with, rather than the gender they were born with.

Fear of a transgender person with a penis walking into the women’s restroom is the latest bogeyman adopted by those on the right who believe that they should use the government to force their worldview of morality on the rest of us.

The North Carolina bill is a kissing cousin to the debates going on in Georgia and Missouri, where lawmakers are pushing legislation that will change state constitutions so that bakers, photographers and printers are specifically allowed to discriminate against gay people who might choose to use their commercial services for a wedding.

Missouri’s Senate Joint Resolution 39 passed the state Senate and is awaiting hearings in the House. In all three states, big businesses such as Monsanto in St. Louis, Coca-Cola in Atlanta, and the NBA in Charlotte, are urging lawmakers to reconsider their rush toward discrimination, lest massive economic boycotts come their way.

How could the debate about discrimination against our gay and lesbian neighbors have gone backward in the 20 years since the Supreme Court turned away Colorado’s Amendment 2?

It has much more to do with politics than it does any changing view of church-state separation or religious freedom. Since 1992, partisan divides have become stark in state legislatures across the country, benefiting primarily Republicans who have used redistricting processes to skew legislative districts to their advantage.

Increasingly, Republicans in legislative bodies are pushed to the right as they design bills meant to protect themselves from primary challenges. Votes on anti-gay bills become a right of passage: The vote is necessary lest one leave any room for criticism that an elected lawmaker just isn’t Republican enough. North Carolina and Georgia are in complete Republican control. Missouri still has the balance of having Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon in place, but he can't veto SJR 39; if it passes it goes directly to the ballot.

The reality of the gay rights issue is that there are plenty of Republicans in Missouri (and probably North Carolina and Georgia) who don’t want to take a vote to discriminate against their gay and lesbian friends, colleagues and family members. I’ve spoken with some of them. They’re scared because today’s political calculus leaves them no wiggle room.

They need to remember the simple decency and dignity of an elderly couple named Gene and Barbara Sternberg, who put their reputations on the line to stand up for their children, to advocate for what was right.

The Supreme Court’s ruling on Amendment 2 20 years ago paved the way for its ruling in Obergefell last year that struck down state bans against same-sex marriage.

Now, too many state lawmakers want to turn back the clock for the most cynical of political reasons.

Don’t let them do it.

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