JEFFERSON CITY - Along with deciding whether or not to lengthen term limits and who will pay the bill for crimes involving guns, the Missouri General Assembly also face the issue of whether homosexuals should be added to the list of protected groups under the human rights laws.
Sen. Bill Clay, D-St. Louis, said his legislation prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation will stop homosexual employees from being discriminated against.
"It would help to make the workplace fair," he said.
Jeff Wunrow, spokesperson for the Privacy Rights Education Project which crafted the bill, said the legislation will give homosexuals in society the same rights that women and people of a different race have -- the right to not be discriminated against.
Wunrow said the only cities in Missouri with such protection for homosexuals now are St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia. Homosexuals in rural areas, he said, have no legal grounds to fight discrimination.
"Gays and lesbians can be fired, evicted from their apartments, denied services at restaurant, hotels, or other public services and have no recourse," he said.
Last year, sexual orientation was added to the hate crime statute, allowing stricter punishment for those who commit crimes against people because of their sexual orientation.
Sen. Dave Klarich, R-St. Louis County, said he is concerned the bill would recognize same sex marriages.
"It might lead to statutory recognition of gay marriages," he said.
Klarich argued that by recognizing gay and lesbian relationships in the law, an employer also would have to recognize them as valid relationships. The employer, he said, must treat that couple as a married couple, allowing benefits such as health care coverage and insurance to the partner of the homosexual employee.
"All he had to do was say, 'this is my significant other,' and the employer would have to cover that person too."
The Senate's GOP leader -- Sen. Steve Ehlmann, R-St. Charles County -- said he also was skeptical about the bill.
"We already have taken care of people who harass someone because of sexual orientation last year. This is a whole other question," he said. "It's not just about anti-discrimination or not being mean to a certain group of people, it's about the unintended consequences."
Rep. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said he would support the legislation.
"It's consistent with the other actions we took with the hate crime law," he said.
Clay said it is clear that he is not trying to promote gay marriages with the legislation, only fairness.
Ten other states have non-discrimination laws and those laws have never been used to promote gay marriages, Wunrow said.
"It's an extreme stretch, and frankly, it's used as a scare tactic," he said. "It's a simple matter of fairness and justice that most people support."