A group of Ohio legislators are trying to add sexual orientation and gender identity or expression into the state’s anti-discrimination law. The bill known as the “Ohio Fairness Act” would make those additions a protected class in employment, housing and other public accommodations.
Right now, a person in Ohio could be fired from their job, kicked out of their apartment, or refused service based on their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.
“We actually do receive those calls, we have those stories," says Alana Jochum, executive director of Equality Ohio.
She is among the advocates defending the rights of LGBTQ people in Ohio. If the “Ohio Fairness Act” passes, those things could no longer legally happen.
The sponsor of SB11, Sen. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) says, “It’s important because LGBTQ Ohioans are still left out of having any kind of protections.”
This is the seventh time a bill like this has been introduced in the past 11 years (see timeline below).
Antonio says the goal is to create a statewide anti-discrimination policy. Right after he was inaugurated in January, Gov. Mike DeWine extended an executive order signed just before Gov. John Kasich left office. This created protections for state workers. Some cities and municipalities have their own local ordinances protecting their residents.
But what happens if an LGBTQ person is fired in a city without these local laws?
“There’s really no recourse, there’s really nothing that they can do,” says Antonio.
Jochum sees this as an unfair patchwork of protections.
“We should have a system where everyone has protection no matter where they live, or work, or engage in their daily life in Ohio,” Jochum says.
Ohio is one of 28 states without this anti-discrimination language. Jochum believes the state is slowly falling behind.
“This is a non-partisan issue. It is a human rights and a civil rights issue, and a business issue for our economy,” says Jochum.
But there are people who oppose the bill, saying that it will actually create more problems for others especially when it comes to religious beliefs.
Aaron Baer, president of Citizens for Community Values, a conservative group, lists off his own scenarios. He cites a faith-based women’s homeless shelter in Anchorage, Alaska locked in a lawsuit for barring a transgender woman. He also notes the high-profile case in Colorado when a baker refused to make a cake for a same-sex couple.
Baer says laws like the “Ohio Fairness Act” leave the door open to conflicts.
“They’re so vague that they create a lot of problems in communities. They create a lot of problems for ministries, for businesses, for individuals, for schools, so we would rather just say ‘hey, this isn’t needed,’” says Baer.
He adds that he believes employment, housing, and services discrimination against LGBTQ people is not a widespread problem.
“At the end of the day we don’t have people being fired for being gay, at least not on a massive level," Baer says. "Most of the time when you hear these stories there’s some other factor going on but I don’t know of a single business owner in any part of Ohio that is actively looking to not hire somebody because they’re gay or serve someone because they’re gay. Every business owner I know wants to get as many customers in the door as possible.”
But Jochum contends this is a prevalent issue in Ohio. However, she says people may not feel comfortable speaking out because of the lack of pro-LGBTQ policies. That being said, Jochum and Antonio do not believe this bill will lead to a groundswell of litigation in Ohio.
“Now there’s a line in the sand for people not to be discriminated against. It raises the bar on our behavior. It doesn’t open the floodgates to complaints,” Antonio says.
The bill is getting a big boost from the business community. The Ohio Chamber of Commerce along with hundreds of companies are calling on lawmakers to pass the bill. They say it makes the state more attractive to new companies looking to move and to a younger workforce.
Timeline of LGBTQ anti-discrimination legislation:
March 2008: Rep. Dan Stewart (D-Columbus) introduces HB502 in the 127th General Assembly which would prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation which, according to an analysis of the bill, was described as "heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, asexuality, or transgenderism, whether actual or perceived."
May 2009: Stewart introduces the legislation again as HB176, this time with Republican co-sponsor Rep. Ross McGregor (R-Springfield). The bill moves through committee and passes the Ohio House, with a Democrat majority, by a vote of 56-38. It then moves to the Republican-controlled Senate where it never receives a hearing.
September 2011: Stewart leaves the House because of term limits, but Rep. Nickie Antonio (D-Lakewood) picks up the bill and introduces HB335 with McGregor as a co-sponsor again. This time Democrats in the Senate, Sens. Charleta Tavares (D-Columbus) and Michael Skindell (D-Lakewood) draft a companion piece, SB231. Those bills only receive one hearing each.
May 2013: Antonio and McGregor sponsor HB163 in the House and the bill only gets one hearing. The Senate version finds a Republican sponsor in Sen. Frank LaRose (R-Copley) with Skindell co-sponsoring. SB125 does not have any hearings in a Senate committee.
November 2015: McGregor was term limited out of the House leaving Antonio to sponsor HB389 with Rep. Denise Driehaus (D-Cincinnati). As with any other version of the bill introduced after 2009, the legislation only has one hearing.
March 2017: Antonio sponsors HB160, the last opportunity for the representative serving her last House term. The bill has had one hearing but Antonio, along with other advocates, remain hopeful about the bill's chances with the addition of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce as a proponent.
February 2019: Antonio introduces SB11 as a new member of the Ohio Senate. The bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Michael Rulli (R-Salem) and is once again backed by the business community.