Stenger supports expansion of county’s anti-discrimination law

Local school board member voices opposition to changes

By Kari Williams

Despite opposition from some 6th District residents, County Councilman Steve Stenger, D-Affton, was one of four council members who voted to amend the county’s anti-discrimination law to include sexual orientation and gender identity.

“My vote stands for the proposition that employment, housing and public accommodation decisions should be based on a person’s qualifications, not sexual orientation or gender identity,” Stenger said at last week’s council meeting before the vote was taken. “I believe that history shows us that inclusive communities are successful communities, and these are communities where all citizens can share in economic opportunities and where all citizens have the opportunity to reciprocate.”

The ordinance relates to “discrimination by county contractors or in connection with” housing, public accommodations, county employment or hate crimes.

Roughly 90 people signed up Nov. 27 to address the County Council about the measure with nearly 80 speaking.

Of the speakers, roughly 60 were opposed to the ordinance and nearly 20 were in favor of the bill, which 5th District Councilman Pat Dolan, D-Richmond Heights, and 2nd District Councilwoman Kathleen Burkett, D-Overland, co-sponsored.

Dolan, Burkett, Stenger and 4th District Councilman Mike O’Mara, D-Florissant, voted in favor of the ordinance.

Seventh District Councilman Greg Quinn, R-Ballwin, 1st District Councilwoman Hazel Erby, D-University City, and 3rd District Councilwoman Colleen Wasinger, R-Town and Country, were opposed.

Council members’ reasons for opposing the measure include believing the County Council was not the appropriate venue to grant special rights, violating religious principles and the language of the bill itself.

Before voting, O’Mara, who serves as council chairman, said his “yes” vote was based “strictly” on the bill as a discriminatory bill.

“I have my faith beliefs, which are separate from this …,” O’Mara said. “This is not easy. I spoke with many council members over this. It’s not an easy decision.”

During a period for public comment, Concord resident Christopher Clegg said a “personal characteristic,” such as sexual orientation or gender identity, cannot be “considered a class of people.”

“This is a chosen lifestyle …,” Clegg said. “I ask, where is the proof they are being discriminated against? Why do we need another law?”

County resident Stephanie James, who said she was born transgender, said she was terminated two weeks before her gender-reassignment surgery.

“I have not been able to find work since. I’ve exhausted my savings, my COBRA, my unemployment and I’ve been on food stamps,” James said. “I lost my home due to foreclosure. Now, my story is not unique … I cannot help that I was born transgender. Nobody would choose this lifestyle. This is something we’re born with.”

However, county resident John Bailiff said sexual orientation and gender identity are behaviors that should not be included in the anti-discrimination law.

“Do not make a law that condones behavior that is controllable,” Bailiff said. “If that’s the case, then we should also make laws to protect those who want to commit bestiality if they want to marry their dog or their cat. What is next?”

County resident Stephanie Rubach told the council the county has “real issues” it should focus on like education and the “economic health of the county.”

Lindbergh Board of Education member Kate Holloway, of Concord, who also spoke against the bill last week, told the council liberty “was never intended to establish a sexual free-for-all.”

“Those individuals who argue to get out of their bedroom are OK with exposing and imposing a behavior by force of mandate that is acceptable to public conduct,” she said. “Religious views, on the other hand, have been taken out of the equation. Christians have been accused of being the intolerant ones for expressing a biblical world view …”

South county resident JoAnn Raisch also addressed the council opposing the bill.

She said when she heard about the proposal she “wondered if God had died and we were not informed.”

“… This piece of legislation will only feed the coffers of attorneys,” Raisch said.

County resident and Master Sgt. Kathy Nix, who spent 33 years in the U.S. Air Force, said she supported the bill.

“I was born a lesbian. I am not a sex offender. I am a Christian. I did not choose, nor would I ever choose, to be discriminated against,” Nix said. “This is not about religion or what you think it says in the Bible. God made me this way. When did you make the choice to be straight?”

Crestwood resident Sherrill Wayland, also director of SAGE Metro St. Louis, an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender, or LGBT, elders, told the council many older LGBT adults live in fear.

“They live in fear of what will happen to them if they have to become dependent on a care system that doesn’t recognize their families and doesn’t support them as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender individuals,” Wayland said.

St. Louis resident Bill Hannegan requested the bill not be approved unless there is a “freedom of conscience” opt out for Christian rental-property owners and other companies involved in the wedding industry.

“I think it’s only fair to them to not put them in a morally difficult situation …,” Hannegan said.

No opt-out clauses were added to the ordinance.

Dolan previously had told the Call private business owners will not be affected by the changes to the ordinance.