As Another Ohio City Addresses LGBTQ Protection, Legislature Mulls Statewide Bill

click to enlarge As Another Ohio City Addresses LGBTQ Protection, Legislature Mulls Statewide Bill
Eric Sandy/Scene

The town of Worthington, Ohio may soon take a big, progressive step forward. It's the latest Ohio city to propose anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ residents. If the legislation passes, Worthington would join nearly two dozen other municipalities — including Cleveland and Cuyahoga County — with such protections in place.

An updated ordinance, which recently passed the city's Community Relations Committee and awaits City Council approval, would protect residents from discrimination in relation to “housing, employment and public accommodations” based on their “sexual orientation” or “gender identity or expression.” Worthington would be the third Franklin County municipality, after Columbus and Bexley, to have such measures in place.

While adding Worthington to the list of municipalities that protect LGBTQ citizens from discrimination would be a positive step, there’s still confusion when it comes to Ohio and the nation at large. Shawn Copeland, state director for the Human Rights Campaign in Ohio, says, “Even in Ohio, where we have these municipalities that have put these protections in place, it’s a patchwork. You could drive from the east coast through Ohio and your rights can change dozens of times.”

Ohio is one of 28 states that doesn’t provide discrimination protection for members of the LGBTQ community, though at least one small measure advancing protections for some came from an unlikely source: Gov. Mike DeWine who, in January, signed an executive order that gave LGBTQ state workers those non-discrimination protections.

It was a sharp about-face for DeWine who, as attorney general, defended the state’s same-sex marriage ban by opposing a lawsuit brought by Ohioan Jim Obergefell; that battle over that lawsuit would ultimately lead to the Supreme Court of the United States declaring same-sex marriage legal.

Then, in February, State Sen. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) introduced The Ohio Fairness Act, a bill that gives all LGBTQ Ohioans these anti-discrimination protections. But she’s filed a version of this bill four times over the last 10 years to no avail, leaving Ohio still lagging behind. Antonio’s bill received its first hearing in front of the senate’s Judiciary Committee earlier in March.

According to Grant Stancliff, communications director for Equality Ohio, the chances of getting the Ohio Fairness Act passed this time are better than ever despite the previous failures. “Our work just adds on itself,” Stancliff says, “so it’s getting stronger and the case for it is getting stronger.”

Stancliff notes the growing support from the Ohio business community, via the nonpartisan Ohio Business Competes collective which calls on the state government to strengthen anti-discrimination laws state-wide to benefit the economy. Companies involved range from small independent businesses to Key Bank and includes Ohio State, Kent State, and Cleveland State.

“It felt like a very small amount of voices calling for this in the past has now swelled into a chorus of voices,” Stancliff says.

Both Copeland and Stancliff note that Antonio’s current bill has bipartisan support and even a GOP co-sponsor in Michael Rulli from the Youngstown area. Noting Rulli’s business background (his family owns a chain of grocery stores), Copeland says he’s “elevating the fact that the business community here sees the importance of having these protections, that it’s the right thing to do.”

There’s still a ways to go for the the Fairness Act, including passing out of the senate’s judiciary committee. Stancliff says, “What we're really hoping for this year and what we're really asking our folks to do isto call the committee and say, ’Hey, at least give this thing a shot. Let's bring it to the floor so that people can vote on it.’”

Ultimately, Stancliff thinks there’s a good chance the Fairness Act could pass this time. “If I'm just checking in with my gut, I don't see a world in which DeWine wouldn't sign something like this if it was passed through the normal channels and it landed on his desk.”
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