JEFFERSON CITY - As students around the country observed a Day of Silence Wednesday in support of making schools safer for gay students, the attention at the state Capitol turned to legislation that opponents say would move in the opposite direction.
The House Education Committee has passed a measure that would prohibit school districts from having stricter non-discrimination clauses than those mandated by state and federal governments.
Under this measure, Columbia Public Schools would be required to remove "sexual orientation" from its nondiscrimination clause. The Columbia School Board added the clause in 1999 by a narrow 4-3 vote.
Proponents of the measure blame schools for teaching students that homosexuality is acceptable. They say these judgements should be left to parents.
Also, the bill's sponsor, Larry Morris, R-Springfield, said that alllowing schools to add the clause would create unneccessary segements in the public, pitting people against each other and creating unneccessary lawsuits. He said that people should not be allowed to discriminate against anyone, period, but that individual groups should not be enumerated.
During a public hearing of the House Education Committee in February, Carol Lieberman testified in favor of the bill on behalf of the Concerned Women of America. She said her son was once gay but has been "healed." Lieberman said she blames her son's high school for his former sexual preference.
"My son went to a high school that bent over backwards not to discriminate against anyone. However, the lesson he learned was that any sexual behavior was equally normal and healthy and safe," she said.
"I though at the time that if he got AIDS, I would sue the school for teaching him that he could be safe in that lifestyle."
Opponents of the bill say that this would be a huge step backwards in the gay rights movement, removing protections they have only recently begun to enjoy. A rally of opposition to the bill was held in the Capitol today by Personal Rights For Missourians, a gay rights lobbying group.
Justin Dijak, a former Rockbridge highschool student who pioneered the movement that persuaded Columbia Public Schools to add "sexual orientation" to the clause in 1999, was among those who spoke on behalf of the group.
Dijak experienced the incorporation of the clause through the eyes of a gay student who was new to the school. From Dijak's first year at the school -- during which sexual orientation was not included in the clause -- to the time he graduated last year, Dijak said he noticed "an incredible change" in the way gay students were treated. Dijak said his first year at the school was rough, as he was harrassed and had a difficult time finding supportive friends.
"Now we have some kind of backing, we have something to fall back on. We have some kind of support," Dijak said. "We don't have to worry about whether the person we're talking to is personally supportive of us. We know that they must be."
But supporters of the bill say that while students shouldn't be encouraged to tease or harrass their peers, homosexuality is a choice that should not be encouraged.
Morris said he spent six years before he decided to run for office as a "reorientation counselor," advising gay men about how they might become reoriented within the straight community. He said he is a liscensed counselor and saw one to two gay patients a week.
"I never went out to the street and pointed a gun at anyone and said 'hey you've got to get in here and talk to me.' They were always people who were extraordinarily unconfortable with the demons within that they had to fight with."
The bill is not currently on the House calendare. Morris has said it is possible that he will try to amend it onto another bill.