If someone is refused an apartment, a job or credit because he or she is gay, you might think that Cincinnati’s Human Rights Ordinance offers some legal recourse. Not really, says local attorney Scott Knox.
Although the ordinance bans numerous types of discrimination including sexual orientation and race, local people who believe they have experienced racial bias can file suit at a state level — and usually do — because protection under the city’s law is meager. The maximum penalty the city can impose in such cases is $1,000.
For Cincinnatians who aren't heterosexual, however, there is no such alternative. And for gays and lesbians living throughout most of Ohio, there’s no legal shield at all.
A pending state bill, the Equal Housing and Employment Act, could change that.
If it passes the Ohio House of Representatives, it would provide uniform protection across the state on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
“It would give teeth to it,” Knox says. “It would give some significant result if you did discriminate. I think it’s consistent with most people’s feeling that if it’s grossly unfair, it should be illegal.”
The bill — House Resolution 176 — is currently on hold in the Ohio House. Although it passed committee and is eligible to be voted on at anytime, the House is mired in eleventh-inning budget negotiations, which have shuffled 176 to the back burner. When it does reach the floor, it will be historic; the only other legislation to be voted on by the House that mentions gays and lesbians was 2004’s Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) that banned any state recognition of gay marriage.
Like DOMA, H.R. 176 has bipartisan support and includes State Rep. Ross McGregor (R-Springfield) as a sponsor.
McGregor has worked closely with the joint sponsor, State Rep. Dan Stewart (D-Columbus), to draft something that could pass the House while retaining its substance. In its present form, the bill would exempt religious organizations and businesses with 15 or fewer employees.
McGregor says his support may carry political risk, but that passing the bill is the right thing to do and makes sense for Ohio’s economy.
“I admit I’ve had constituents contact me who do not agree with this bill,” he says. “But their reasons for not agreeing with it — it’s a value thing for them — where I’m looking at it as a business issue. The state of Ohio really can’t afford to discriminate against anybody right now because we need all the talent we can possibly keep to stay here in Ohio and be taxpaying, productive members of our community.”
McGregor expresses optimism that the bill will pass, but says voting may not happen until fall. He speculates that because passage of the budget is the top priority and its approval requires a unified body of representatives, the House leader may be holding off on flooring this incendiary issue until after the budget bill passes.
“I think there are many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who also are challenged by this issue,” McGregor says. “But I’ve been told by Rep. Stewart that their caucus is 100 percent behind supporting House Bill 176. If I take him at his word, then this bill will naturally pass given that they’re the majority.
“I’m working hard with my colleagues in my caucus and there are some who understand that this is just about basic civil rights and there is something wrong with being able to fire someone simply because of sexual orientation,” he adds. “There are some of us in my caucus that recognize that and will be supportive when it comes to the House floor. It’s probably not an overwhelming number but enough that a statement will be made that Ohio cannot tolerate discrimination in any form.”
McGregor says for some constituents nothing would ever make the bill palatable and anything that normalizes or legitimizes the lifestyle is abhorrent.
“It is by no means something that is a human right or a civil right,” says Linda Harvey, president of Mission America, a Columbus-based religious organization. “I know many African-Americans who are completely dismayed about the use of their long struggle for civil rights and adapting it to what many people still believe, and there’s great support in the research, is unnecessary and high risk and an undesirable disorder.
“They’re not talking about equal rights,” she adds. “They’re talking about something that is a changeable human characteristic and they’re trying to make it seem people are simply born this way and they’re not. I know tons of ex-homosexuals.”
Harvey was one of many residents who gave testimony to the Ohio House on the bill. Ohio Christian Alliance President Chris Long says members of the LGBT community don’t generally confront problems in the workplace or with housing unless they make an issue of their sexuality. As long as it doesn’t become a flagrant issue in the workplace they will not have a problem, he says.
Ohio teacher Jimmie Beall’s experience is different.
In her testimony to the House to support the bill, she described her dismissal from a school in London, Ohio. Beall taught at the school for several years but was fired after she made a presentation to her class on the problems of LGBT discrimination.
“I was offered a contract, in writing,” Beall says in her testimony, “only to be devastated two days later when the superintendent told the principal and board members there were ‘questions’ about my sexual orientation. … What did the gender of my partner have to do with my excellence as an educator? The answer of course, is nothing.
“Who I love or am married to has nothing to do with how well I do my job, and therefore should have nothing to do with renewing my contract. Except that in Ohio that kind of discrimination is legal. I want you to know two very important truths today: this is legal, and because it is — this does happen.”