Missouri business groups divided on LGBT-discrimination ban

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri businesses are divided over a proposed ban on discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, with some companies during a Wednesday hearing backing the measure as needed to recruit top candidates and some powerful business groups countering it could lead to more lawsuits.

The legislation, proposed by Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny of St. Louis, would bar discrimination based on gender identity and sexual orientation in employment, housing, financial assistance and public accommodations.

It's backed by Democratic lawmakers and Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, but Republican legislative leaders have said such a ban has little chance of passing this session.

A hearing on the bill in the Senate's only Democratic-led committee Wednesday also highlighted the division among business leaders.

St. Louis Regional Chamber government relations manager Austin Walker said the group considers the bill "pro-business."

Lobbyist Duane Simpson said agricultural giant Monsanto competes for job applicants globally. He said while the St. Louis-based company has policies to protect lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender employees, candidates routinely say they're "concerned about living in this community."

"In order for us to remain competitive, we have to make sure employees are allowed to be who they are regardless of who they are," Simpson said.

James Pittman told lawmakers he was fired from Cook Paper Recycling Corp. in 2011 weeks after his boyfriend at the time moved in with him. The Kansas City man filed a lawsuit against his former employer for discrimination, but a state appeals court in October ruled he can't sue because Missouri law doesn't include LGBT protections.

Company president Joe Jurden in a statement said Pittman wasn't harassed at work.

"I think this should pass to protect the rights of gay and lesbian employees, because I just think it's the right thing to do," Pittman said.

But the nondiscrimination bill doesn't have support from two of the state's most powerful business groups.

Associated Industries of Missouri President and CEO Ray McCarty said adding LGBT protections could open businesses up to new lawsuits, a concern GOP Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard has said he shares.

"We encourage our members to have policies that discourage discrimination at every turn," McCarty said. "But we do not feel that setting up an additional protected class is something that would be good for the state of Missouri."

Missouri law currently bars employment discrimination based on age, ancestry, color, disability, national origin, race, religion or sex.

A lobbyist for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry said the group opposes adding gender identity or sexual orientation to that list unless legislators change state law to raise the bar for workers to win employment discrimination lawsuits when they believe those biases played a role.

The Senate committee still needs to vote on the bill. Republican Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe this week said if the measure passes out of committee he expects it will be debated by the full Senate.