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Bias bill

St. Louis County extends bias protections to gays and lesbians

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Steve Stenger

This Nov. 1, 2011, file photo shows St. Louis County Council Chairman Steve Stenger (right) and County Executive Charlie Dooley. Photo by Laurie Skrivan. 

ST. LOUIS COUNTY • In one of the longest and most emotional meetings in the St. Louis County Council’s history, an ordinance was narrowly passed Tuesday night that adds gender identity and sexual orientation to the county’s anti-discrimination regulations and hate crimes law.

An overflow crowd of more than 250 people spilled out of the council chambers in Clayton; 92 of them signed up to address the council, and most took advantage of that opportunity in a public comments segment that lasted more than two hours.

And as could be expected on an issue that involved religion and civil rights, most of them spoke fervently.

The ordinance adds protections for people in employment, housing and public accommodations in unincorporated areas, regardless of their sexual orientation. It also expands protections on the basis of gender and disability.

Among the first at the podium was Michelle Smith, a senior project engineer at Boeing Co. who supports the ordinance.

“My company supported me during my transition from male to female six years ago,” Smith said. “I, however, know many LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) employees at large and small companies who are afraid to be themselves at work.”

Many who spoke against the measure cited their Christian faith, including Kathryn Holloway of Sunset Hills.

After quoting founding father John Adams on the definition of freedom, Holloway said: “Liberty was never intended for establishing a sexual free-for-all.”

She added: “Christians are being accused of being the intolerant ones for expressing a biblical worldview.”

Numerous speakers called for the inclusion of a “freedom of conscience” clause in the bill for businesses whose owners have a religious, ethical or moral objection to homosexuality.

Bill Hannegan said such a clause was especially needed for workers in the wedding industry, as well as for those whose jobs include crafting messages, such as sign painters, printers, calligraphers, artists, bakers and florists.

“It’s not fair to put those people in a morally difficult position,” Hannegan said.

The bill includes exemptions for religious organizations. However, Michael Peters, pastor of Christ the King Covenant Church in Webster Groves, who opposed the bill, asked the council if his church would forfeit that exemption, since it rents its church hall to the public, including to St. Louis County as a polling place.

As it happens, Peters’ church would not be included, since the law only applies in unincorporated areas.

However, assistant county counselor Bob Grant said after the meeting that he could not render an immediate opinion on whether a situation like that described by Peters could happen in unincorporated areas.

The bill’s sponsor, County Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, refused to alter the bill to include any opt-out clauses, saying lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgender individuals deserve the same legal protections as racial minority groups.

Many who spoke against the ordinance said that it confused “choice” with “orientation.”

Kathy Nix, of Maryland Heights, challenged that opinion, saying: “I was born a lesbian. I am not a sex offender. I am a Christian. God made me this way.

“When,” she added, “did any one of you make a choice to be straight?”

The bill passed 4-3. Voting in favor were four of the council’s five Democratic members: Dolan; Kathleen Burkett, of Overland, who co-sponsored the bill; Mike O’Mara, of Florissant; and Steve Stenger, of South County.

Voting in support, Stenger said: “I believe history shows us inclusive communities are successful communities.”

The council’s other Democrat, Hazel Erby, of University City, joined Republicans Colleen Wasinger, of Town and Country, and Greg Quinn, of Ballwin, in voting against it.

Erby said that, while she did “not condone discrimination of any kind,” she was concerned that the bill had “vague language” that could lead to unintended legal ramifications.

The county’s ordinance already prohibits discrimination with respect to race, color, religion, national origin, gender and familial status.

The bill would also extend to people with disabilities, while prohibiting demotions and discharges, as well as promotions and appointments, for any individuals in the newly included groups who work in the county’s merit system of employment.

Clayton, Creve Coeur, Ferguson, Maplewood, Olivette, Richmond Heights and University City, as well as the city of St. Louis, have passed such legislation in recent years.

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Paul Hampel is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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