Danny Ferguson has not received any gifts yet
Under current law in Adrian, Missouri, it is completely legal for someone to be fired, evicted, or refused service just because they’re gay. When I proposed a nondiscrimination ordinance to the Adrian City Council, one objection opponents raised was “If that happens, they can just file a lawsuit.” I pointed out that such a lawsuit would go nowhere in a state that doesn’t outlaw that type of discrimination. A recent court ruling proves that discrimination remains legal in Missouri.
In late 2013, before I introduced the ordinance, I approached the other members of the council and explained that gay and transgender people can legally get fired, evicted, or refused service based on their orientation or gender identity. Two members agreed with me that this was unjust and they said they would support a nondiscrimination ordinance. Several cities in Missouri had already adopted such ordinances because these types of discrimination remain legal under state and federal law.
Having secured the three votes needed for passage, I recruited some help in drafting the bill. I reached out to several equal rights groups and Aaron Malin, Executive Director of Missourians for Equality, agreed to help. We looked over Adrian’s current municipal code and Aaron put together two options that would accomplish our goal of making discrimination illegal. I added the topic to the agenda for the March, 2014 meeting and arrived with both ordinances in hand.
Based on an earlier council discussion, I knew that the city attorney was a fundamentalist Christian. So, I wasn’t surprised when she opposed the ordinance. She argued that this law would open the city up to lawsuits. I pressed her to provide examples and she wasn’t able to. But her objections must have given one council member second thoughts because when the vote was cast, only two members supported it. The other two opposed it. The Mayor of Adrian only votes in order to break a tie. As I feared, he cast a no vote, defeating the bill.
During the time between the March and April meetings, I repeatedly tried to get the city attorney to elaborate on her objections. She ignored all my requests. I spoke with the council member who had pledged to support the bill before opposing it and tried to understand the reasons behind that change. In our original conversation this member had said, “If someone wants to work, they shouldn’t have to worry about being fired for that.” I still don’t understand exactly what changed this person’s mind.
For the April meeting, the last one before my term ended, Mr. Malin appeared before the council to answer questions. He explained that none of the other cities have experienced legal trouble after passing nondiscrimination ordinances. In fact, the council members who tried to stop the law from passing in Kirksville were voted out in the next election. St. Louis, Kansas City, and Columbia have seen no ill effects after passing their equality ordinances.
In the meeting, I asked the city attorney if she had come up with any examples of cities getting into legal trouble after passing similar ordinances. She still had none, as I expected. But she did surprise me by dropping that line of argument altogether and switching to a new one. Now she said that we should only pass laws to address existing problems and since we didn’t have evidence of any ongoing discrimination, it would be wrong to pass the ordinance.
In the months since, I’ve thought a lot about how I could have responded to that. I wish I had said something like this: “Those of us who have spent most of our lives in Adrian can probably name at least one LGBT person who has left our city, at least in part, because of the way they were treated. Maybe you haven’t seen that side of Adrian in your brief time here, counsel, but I believe our city would be better if we were open and welcoming to all types of people. Yes, there is a problem. Discrimination remains legal here and we have the power to change that.”
When the vote was cast, the measure failed again, 3-2, with the mayor breaking the tie. It was a disappointing end to my time on the council. I’ve often thought about writing this article about the experience, but I put it off because it seemed futile and upsetting. This week, two items in the news brought my mind back to that meeting a year and a half ago.
On October 27, 2015, the Western District Missouri Court of Appeals ruled against James Pittman, a Jackson County man who had been harassed and then fired from his job for being gay. From the ruling: “If the Missouri legislature had desired to include sexual orientation in the Missouri Human Rights Act’s protections, it could have done so. No matter how compelling Pittman’s argument may be and no matter how sympathetic this court or the trial court may be to Pittman’s situation, we are bound by the state of the law as it currently exists.”
The Court recognized that Pittman was treated unfairly. But they were unable to rule in his favor because federal, state, and local lawmakers (mostly Republicans) have refused to outlaw this type of discrimination. This is a problem we can fix. But as long as keep electing people who put their own prejudices ahead of their neighbors’ well-being, then discrimination will continue. State Representative Stephen Webber (D - Columbia) has repeatedly introduced a bill in Jefferson City to outlaw this type of discrimination, but Republican leadership in the state House has blocked it each time.
The second news item that brought this episode back to the front of my mind was from Houston, Texas. In May of 2014, just a month after the Adrian council rejected my ordinance, the Houston city council passed a similar nondiscrimination law with their mayor’s support. Conservative religious groups immediately began working to repeal the equal rights ordinance. They managed to get a referendum on the ballot and they launched a transphobic campaign focused on the fear that men would invade women’s bathrooms as a result of the nondiscrimination law. Last week, the referendum struck down the equal rights law by a vote of 61%-39%. Now discrimination is legal again in Houston.
“The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That line is often attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr., but it is not original to him. It dates back to Theodore Parker and the abolition movement of the 1850s. Changing the prejudiced mindset of a nation takes many generations. We’ve seen much progress since Parker first wrote those words, but there’s much left to do. A Supreme Court ruling in 2003 prevents gay and lesbian citizens from being thrown in jail for who they are. Another ruling from last summer allows same-sex couples to marry. But they can still be evicted, fired, or thrown out of a restaurant just for refusing to hide who they love. Is that the kind of community we want to be?