Supreme Court decision could pave way to expanded LGBT rights in Ohio

Bolstered by a summer U.S. Supreme Court decision, long-sought legislation protecting LGBT rights could pass the Ohio legislature by the end of the year.

The Ohio Fairness Act, proposed as Ohio House Bill 369 and Senate Bill 11, would protect LGBT individuals from discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations. Ohio Sen. Nicki Antonio, D-Lakewood, and others have introduced a similar bill every legislative session for over a decade. The proposed law must pass by the end of this year or it will need to be reintroduced next legislative session in 2021.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 6-to-3 in Bostock v. Clayton County, Georgia that an employer who fires a worker for being gay or transgender violates the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964. Conservative Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion.

In light of the landmark decision, a simplified Ohio House Bill 369 was presented to the Ohio House Civil Justice Committee on Nov. 19. Antonio said the same changes will be made to its companion bill, Ohio Senate Bill 11, and presented to the Ohio Senate Judiciary Committee when it meets next.

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The latest versions of both bills would do essentially the same thing as before. The Ohio Fairness Act as it was introduced made amendments throughout the Ohio Revised Code to expand various laws prohibiting discrimination. The new bill proposes a single amendment specifying that any Ohio law about sex discrimination includes discrimination based on a person’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.

State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said the Bostock decision makes the case for the Ohio Fairness Act stronger, “because Ohio law is in large measure patterned after federal law.”

Seitz, however, said the bill still needs work. He said the bill should reference the U.S. Supreme Court directly so there is a “trigger law” if a new court reverses a previous decision. He also said the bill should provide for religious exemptions and cite the 2018 U.S. Supreme Court decision in favor of a Colorado baker who refused to make a gay couple’s wedding cake.

Antonio told the Dayton Daily News this objection is a red herring and arguing “about cake” is a moot point since the Supreme Court already ruled in favor of religious exemptions. The Ohio Fairness Act would allow for religious exemptions, she said.

The latest hearing in the Ohio House Civil Justice Committee on Nov. 19 featured a large number of pastors and religious leaders testifying against House Bill 369 on moral grounds.

“HB 369 favors one belief over others and is a step toward requiring everyone to live in conformity with that belief,” said Curt Sharbaugh, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in New Carlisle, in written testimony.

The bill has received bipartisan support, including from a long list of businesses. Many of the bill’s proponents testified in earlier hearings.

Stephanie Keinath, vice president of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, is among the Ohio business leaders who have submitted testimony in support of the bill.

“For Ohio’s employer community, passing this legislation will better position them to recruit talent from across the country,” Keinath said in her written testimony. “The result of this Supreme Court ruling is that employers in Ohio … are now vulnerable to lawsuits filed in federal court. Providing consistency between state and federal employment law is critical for our employers in Ohio.”

Antonio said she is hopeful the Ohio Fairness Act will finally pass this session and said there are some “very enthusiastic Republicans who would like to see us get this done … frankly, so we can move on to other things.”

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