A proposed law that would seek to stop discrimination for LGBTQ people in Ohio is seeing a new wave of support. Business groups say sexual orientation and gender identification should be considered protected classes under state law.
Holly Gross with the Columbus Chamber says the bill would protect civil rights with an added bonus of bringing economic benefits, making Ohio more competitive at attracting businesses who see these laws as forward thinking.
“It’s also a tool for businesses large and small at attracting and retaining the best and brightest,” Gross says. “That’s what we heard over and over again, businesses have consistently told us that having a diverse and inclusive workforce has benefits to them, it helps their bottom line.”
Sandy Anderson with Equality Ohio says these laws are imperative for LGBTQ people. She uses the example of going to Washington in 2014 to marry her wife then returning to Ohio.
“What people find surprising in many states, including Ohio, that in Ohio we still don’t have legal protections for LGBTQ citizens in housing, employment and public accommodations,” Anderson says. “And what that means is that a person can be married, post their pictures on Facebook, as we did, come back to their home state and be fired from their job, be denied housing, be denied service in a restaurant or store, bakery what have you. And that’s just not right.”
The bill does face opposition. Citizens for Community Values, a conservative group, has come out against the bill, calling it a sweeping form of legislation that would create many unintended consequences. One of their main arguments, says Aaron Baer, is that Ohio doesn’t have a major problem with discrimination against sexual orientation or gender identity.
“The question is, ‘Do we need a government policy, an overreaching government policy, that has strict penalties, that’s vague in its nature, to deal with this?’” Baer says. “And I would say the answer is no, and I think really what shows that we don’t have a problem with discrimination is the fact that we have so many businesses stepping up and saying they don’t discriminate in their hiring practices. We have the Columbus Chamber here, we have the Ohio Chamber that has endorsed this bill, these are the most powerful institutions in our state that are stepping forward and saying we don’t discriminate.”
But Equality Ohio disagrees about the scope of the problem.
“The bottom line is, of course there is a problem to be solved, so here’s some information that might help,” Anderson says. “First of all, everyday – certainly every week – Equality Ohio, our staff, receive phone calls from people all around the state who are suffering discrimination because they are LGBTQ.”
Gross says this affects businesses as well.
“From a talent, attraction and retention standpoint, a business does have trouble attracting LBGTQ individuals, retaining and recruiting them, if they can have a job but they may be in danger of losing their home or in danger of being discriminated in public accommodations,” Gross says. “Businesses want employees to be able to live their best lives but that’s just not possible without these protections in place.”
Baer fears that there are business owners who would be denied freedom of religion and speech if their decisions affected a customer or employee in a way that contradicted these proposed anti-discrimination laws.
“To tell those few people that you’re going to lose your job if you speak out on these issues, if you share your opinion, that’s the opposite of pluralism,” Baer says. “That’s the opposite of us living together, that’s saying if you disagree, you’re going to be punished, and we see those things happening.”
Gross offers another perspective.
“I would say laws that were intended to shield religious liberties are now being used as a sword against anti-discrimination policies,” Gross responded.
The bill has had two hearings in the House, which included testimony from several business groups. That’s more attention than the proposal has received in a decade.
While it does seem to be picking up more support, it’s unlikely the bill will see a committee vote before the House leaves for summer break.