Business Community Widely Supports LGBTQ Discrimination Bill; Religious Group Opposes

Columbus Chamber
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Redistributed via Hannah News Service, Inc., April 18, 2018 

The Ohio business community is leaning in on support for a bill that would protect members of the LGBTQ community from housing, employment and public discrimination, saying that inclusionary practices benefit their employees and bottom lines.

However, one Ohio group advocating for Christian values says the bill is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and may cause more harm than good.

At a Wednesday forum of the Columbus Metropolitan Club, members from these groups discussed the potential effects of HB160 (Antonio), which would add sexual orientation, gender identity and expression to the list of protected classes, alongside categories like sex, race and religious persuasion, that cannot be discriminated against.

Sandra Anderson, chair of the Equality Ohio Fund; Holly Gross, vice president of government relations for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce; and Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values, joined host Andy Chow of Ohio Public Radio for Wednesday’s discussion.

While the forum used the new support of the business community as a framing device, the discussion touched heavily on the contentious issues surrounding civil rights, the history of discrimination against minorities, freedom of speech and religious liberty.

Anderson shared first-hand experience as a member of Equality Ohio and as a gay woman who married her wife outside of Ohio prior to the 2015 Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court case legalizing same-sex marriage.

“What people find surprising is that in Ohio, we still don’t have legal protections for LGBTQ citizens. A person can be married, post pictures on Facebook, just as we did, and be fired from their jobs, be denied housing, be denied services and it’s just not right,” Anderson said, noting that versions of HB160 have been proposed for over 10 years. “We’ve been informing people and changing hearts and minds on this issue. People like me, hopefully, show that it’s all about love and nothing to be feared.”

Gross said that her organization went through a rigorous process of asking member businesses if this proposal was something they’d support. She said that the both the Columbus Chamber’s steering committee and small business council had approved becoming a proponent of the bill. This is a reflection of changing business attitudes about the future of the state’s workforce, she said, noting that the Ohio Chamber of Commerce also supports the bill.

“We view it as a policy that is crucial to making Ohio more competitive against states that have already attracted these businesses. It’s a tool for businesses large and small to attract and retain the best and brightest talent. Businesses continuously told us that having a diverse and inclusive workforce helps their bottom line,” Gross said. 

Baer, whose organization opposes the bill, argued that Ohio is already a state where diversity is celebrated and where businesses are open to a diverse public. He argued that the Columbus Chamber and the Ohio Chamber’s own support of the law was a testament to this. But he said that the harm that the bill would do to businesses and employers who wish to operate according to their religious values outweighs the potential benefits.

“These laws, like HB160, have created problems in the name of solving a problem that may be near and dear to some peoples’ hearts and may have actually caused issues for individuals and some pain but isn’t happening on mass levels here in Ohio that warrant such a serious and what I would consider a radical step of adding new protected classes to our civil rights laws,” he argued.

Anderson later argued that Baer is understating the problem, saying that Equality Ohio consistently receives complaints and noted that the Ohio Civil Rights Commission has received over 100 complaints, 40 since same-sex marriage became legal. She said that number could even be higher considering that many Ohioans do not know that there is no legal protection in those cases.

To illustrate his point regard unintended consequences. Baer gave the example of Kelvin Cochran, who was suspended and subsequently forced out of the Atlanta, GA Fire Department in 2014 after writing a book that discussed biblical views of sexuality and his disapproval of homosexuality, among other topics. Baer said a subsequent investigation found no reports of discrimination in his office. Cochran’s firing was upheld by U.S. District Court in December 2017.

“This is the type of consequence we see in these laws. These are the types of speech restrictions and anti-diversity policies that flow out of bills like HB160. We need to find ways to live together. Sometimes public policy creating broad law like HB160 isn’t the right way to go about creating diversity and pluralism in our city and in our state,” Baer said.

At one point a member of the audience exclaimed that Cochran had been circulating this book with his employees, to which Baer reiterated that no employees had been discriminated against, even if that were true.

Anderson noted that the bill, in its text and effect, makes no changes to the current prohibitions and exceptions regarding religious freedom. Baer argued it absolutely did, pointing to court cases regarding similar laws in other states. He said, “Religious freedom isn’t just the freedom to go to church or believe whatever you want,” saying it’s the free exercise of religion that should be guaranteed. He noted the considerable good that the religious community has done in fighting the opioid epidemic, human trafficking and other humanitarian issues.

Gross noted that there is a history, however, of religious freedom laws being used as a deterrent against civil rights.

“Laws that were intended to shield religious liberty are now being used as a sword against anti-discrimination policies. The Supreme Court, 50 years ago, decided the question of a restaurant owner who invoked their religious beliefs when denying service to an African American. We at the chamber have taken the position that when a business opens their doors to the public they open them to all. We decided as a society, a long time ago, that discrimination is unacceptable, and we believe that HB160 does not afford additional rights to the LGBT community. It treats them fairly and equally, like the rest of us,” Gross said. 

Despite opposition, Anderson said, there is growing evidence that a move toward these non-discrimination statutes is imminent, noting the business support and the support of young people. She invoked the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“A wise man once said, ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.’ When racial discrimination was outlawed, not every business snapped to and started obeying. It took some changing of hearts and minds. … When you see the business support for this law, you can anticipate that the growing pains are going to be small,” she said.

Taking questions from the audience, Baer said it would be more appropriate to rely on cultural understanding and virtue to combat discrimination, saying, “Not every problem needs to be taken to the Statehouse.”

Anderson ended Wednesday’s forum by noting that this bill, if enacted, would have more far-reaching effects than just on the business community.

“The children of today, when they realize that Ohio will protect them, they will feel safe, secure and welcome,” she said. 

Redistributed via Hannah News Service, Inc., April 18, 2018