JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — A Republican lawmaker has introduced a bill similar to those that have sparked outrage in other states because it could protect businesses that refuse service to gay and lesbian individuals.
Sen. Wayne Wallingford, R-Cape Girardeau, on Monday filed Senate Bill 916, which would allow businesses to cite religious belief as a legal justification for refusing service.
Kansas lawmakers are considering a bill that specifically gives legal protection to businesses that refuse service to gay individuals on the basis of religion. That bill faced fierce opposition but was approved by the Kansas House of Representatives before dying in the Senate.
Additionally, Arizona lawmakers have passed a bill with similar provisions. Republican Gov. Jan Brewer has not yet decided if she will approve or veto the bill.
In Indiana, lawmakers on a House committee bowed to public pressure Tuesday when they nixed a controversial proposal that would have allowed some state contractors to discriminate against employees based on religion.
Wallingford told the News-Leader he does not support discrimination in the workplace but said the issue is two-sided.
Wallingford said that last year he voted in favor of a bill that would prohibit discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, housing and public accommodations. That bill passed the Senate but died in the House.
"There's discrimination kind of on both sides. I certainly don't want any discrimination in the workforce," Wallingford said. "But I'm also concerned about discrimination going the other direction."
Wallingford used the scenario of a baker or photographer who is asked to bake a cake or photograph a gay wedding, arguing they could potentially be sued if they refuse to provide their services.
"That's what I'm trying to avoid. I want to be able to accommodate both sides, which will put me in the middle probably in a very dangerous position," Wallingford said. "I don't want to see discrimination against people on the job, but I don't want to see discrimination against individuals that own their own companies."
However, there is currently no prohibition against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in state law. Some municipalities have passed non-discrimination ordinances, but Springfield has not.
A.J. Bockelman, director of PROMO, a Missouri LGBT advocacy organization, said there is no compromise to be made when it comes to public accommodations. He likened the situation to lunch counter protests in the 1950s and '60s, when African Americans staged sit-ins at diners that refused to serve them.
Bockelman said the slew of bills around the country on the issue represent a lashing out by a losing opposition.
"There's always a final act by the stalwart opponents to try to shut down any progress on an issue," Bockelman said.
Senate Bill 916, as it is currently worded, would not remove any protections against discrimination currently in Missouri law.
"Nothing in this section shall be construed ... to establish a defense to a civil action or criminal prosecution based on federal, state, or local civil rights law involving discrimination as defined in section 213.010," the bill reads.
In Missouri law, section 213.010 is the part of the Missouri Human Rights Act that defines discrimination. Under that section, discrimination is "any unfair treatment based on race, color, religion, national origin, ancestry, sex, age as it relates to employment, disability, or familial status as it relates to housing."
The senator said he has heard concerns about the legislation.
"I said, well, bring me some ideas. Bring me what you might think an appropriate amendment might be or a revision or something that I could entertain by putting it into the bill," Wallingford said.
"I know other states have done some legislation and, you know, have come up with some good ideas or had some ideas that have been challenged, and I'm trying to come up with something that would be reasonably acceptable here in Missouri for us," Wallingford said.
The outlook for Wallingford's bill appears unclear. To advance, it must be approved by a Senate committee. It has not yet been assigned to a committee.
"I'm not trying to rock the boat necessarily but just be fair to all sides involved," Wallingford said.