Legislation that would make it tougher to prove workplace and housing discrimination in court passed in Missouri after nearly seven hours of debate in the House. The measure seems to have an easier path ahead of it, with the governor likely to sign it.
Some lawmakers and groups including the NAACP have decried the proposal, which the House approved 98-30 Monday night and the Senate passed in March. The critics claim it removes worker protections and gives Missouri one of the toughest standards for proving discrimination in the country. Some House Democrats abstained from voting on the measure, citing concerns about an alleged conflict of interest from the bill's sponsor.
But some Republican lawmakers and groups such as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry say the rule change is necessary to reduce the number of "frivolous lawsuits" that have made it too hard to do business in the state.
The legislation would require people suing for discrimination to prove that a protected class such as race, gender, age or ability was "the motivating factor" for disciplinary action from an employer. Under current law, employees must only prove that their protected class contributed to an employer's decision to fire, discipline or refuse to hire them.
The measure also sets caps for the amount of damages an employer must pay based on the size of the company and prohibits people from suing some individuals, such as a supervisor, for discrimination.
Republican Gov. Eric Greitens will receive the legislation on his desk soon. He is likely to sign it.
"It is important that we create an environment where businesses can thrive," Greitens told the Associated Press last month.
A spokesman for the governor didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
Critics of the bill argued on Monday that the new rules would make it nearly impossible to prove workplace discrimination in court.
"This is wrong," said Democratic Rep. Bruce Franks Jr. after reading a series of racial slurs cited in a pending lawsuit case that accuses Republican Sen. Gary Romine's rent-to-own business of workplace discrimination. Romine is the bill sponsor.
"The judicial system looks a little bit different when you look like me," said Franks, who is black. "This bill is not acceptable — the fact that we're even speaking about this is even a problem."
Romine has repeatedly contended that the new bill wouldn't affect the case and that he had proposed similar measures before the lawsuit was filed.
Republican Rep. Joe Don McGaugh said the bill would correct "judicial overreach" that for years has discouraged businesses from coming to the state.
"This has been 10 years in the making — it's been a real shame that we haven't done more before this," he said.
The legislation also affects housing discrimination claims. A Department of Housing and Urban Development representative told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch last month that the stricter standards could make Missouri law inconsistent with the federal Fair Housing Act, jeopardizing about $600,000 in federal money that goes to local civil rights agencies.
On Monday, lawmakers in the House proposed several amendments to fix what some called drafting errors in the language of the proposal. All of the changes were struck down.
Republican Rep. Jay Barnes argued that portions of the bill could restrict protections for medical professionals who refuse to participate in abortions, remove security for some whistleblowers that expose illegal activities at work, and prevent some individuals from being held accountable for sexual harassment.
But supporters of the bill urged lawmakers not to pass any changes, saying that amendments could jeopardize its passage.
Lawmakers have until Friday to pass legislation and send it to the governor. An amended bill would have had to go back to the Senate and likely faced a Democratic filibuster.
Associated Press reporter Summer Ballentine contributed to this report.
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