JEFFERSON CITY - The campaign for gay rights came before a committee of Missouri's legislature. But supporters concede that it may be years before homosexuals gain protection from discrimination.
A House committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that would add sexual orientation to the state's anti-discrimination law, making it illegal to discriminate against a gay or lesbian in the areas of housing, employment or public accommodations.
Under the plan, it would be illegal for employers to deny a job or for renters to deny housing based on a person's sexual orientation. It does allow exemptions for small businesses and those renting rooms in a house.
Currently, state law prohibits discrimination based on race, color, national origin, ancestry sex, age, disability or family status.
Gay-rights activist Jeff Wunrow of the Privacy Rights Education Project said the bill would merely give homosexuals the same protection from discrimination that other groups enjoy.
"I don't know that necessarily our goal is acceptance by society," Wunrow said. "Our interest is in creating those laws and protections for people who have historically have experienced discrimination."
The bill's sponsor, Rep. Robert Hilgemann, D-St. Louis City, said the bill faces significant opposition although the plan has 46 co-sponsors, including all three Columbia representatives. Hilgemann said people have strong personal beliefs, and it may take time for views to change.
"We're a ways off from having the support to get something like this adopted," Hilgemann said. "This is going to take years."
Rep. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, said the bill is poorly written and may come with unwanted repercussions. He said the proposal would keep schools from restricting a male transgendered student from using the girl's locker room or playing on the women's basketball team.
"I think the wording is sufficiently unclear that the general public wouldn't have any idea on how it needs to be applied," Bartle said.
If passed, the bill could affect recent attempts to add sexual orientation to the University of Missouri System's nondiscrimination statement. Representatives from the Associated Students of the University of Missouri testified for the bill, saying it mirrors what they have been pushing for at the university.
"I think it will supersede the university's policy and in a sense make the Board of Curators reevaluate their stance on that," ASUM lobbyist Tiffany Ellis said.