COLUMBUS, Ohio – Bipartisan bills will be introduced in the Ohio Senate and House seeking to extend nondiscrimination protections to LGBTQ Ohioans, sponsors said Thursday, the 10th time lawmakers have attempted to push them through the General Assembly.
The Ohio Fairness Act would extend civil rights protections for gay and transgender people in the workplace, housing, education and other parts of everyday life that are offered to Ohioans based on their age, sex, race, disability, military status, religion and other identities.
It’s sponsored by Sen. Nickie Antonio, a Lakewood Democrat who is the only openly gay member of the legislature, along with Sen. Michael Rulli, a Republican of the Mahoning Valley.
Co-sponsors of the Senate bill include all its Democrats, as well as Republican Sens. Matt Dolan of Chagrin Falls and Nathan Manning of North Ridgeville.
In the House, a similar bill is being introduced by Reps. Mike Skindell, a Lakewood Democrat, and Brett Hillyer, a Tuscarawas County Republican.
“I am a conservative, small-government Republican who believes in nondiscrimination, and that discrimination has no place in employment, or business or our economy,” Hillyer said. “As a conservative, I believe in upward mobility, prosperity and growth — things that our party was founded upon, and believe this bill fits very well.”
The legislation is being introduced shortly after Republican Gov. Mike DeWine, in his budget recommendations to the Ohio General Assembly, announced he wants to spend $50 million on an ad campaign to try to persuade people to move to the state. He described Ohio as progressive and welcoming when questioned why people would want to move here, considering some may be turned off by no statewide LGBTQ nondiscrimination law and dozens of anti-abortion bills that have been passed in the last decade.
“I’d like to suggest that we send a strong message to our new Zoom economy and future transplants by passing the Fairness Act and sending that strong message that Ohio is open for business,” Antonio said. “And it’s a state that welcomes all families.”
The bill has the backing of the Ohio Chamber of Commerce, the ACLU of Ohio, Equality Ohio and the LGBT Community Center of Greater Cleveland.
Most of the country has revised its nondiscrimination laws to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Only 22 states, Ohio being among them, have not.
Ohio Senate President Matt Huffman, who is influential over what bills advance in his chamber, told reporters Wednesday he opposes the bill.
“As a general notion, creating another set of parameters for lawsuits that of course inevitably fall on the back of employers, sometimes small employers, will be fairly devastating to those employers,” he said, noting many companies already have internal policies banning LGBTQ discrimination. “These kinds of protections need to be in place in my mind if this is a chronic societal problem, as you had in many places in the United States in the 1950s and 60s prior to the Ohio Civil Rights Act. That’s why we created many of the laws we did…But I don’t think that this measures up to that same kind of problem.”
Antonio remained optimistic that Huffman would listen and allow the bill to have a shot of passing.
“One thing I know about President Huffman is he is a man who listens and has an open mind,” Antonio replied. “And so to me what that means is that we just need to let President Huffman know that indeed this bill is needed.”
Despite the decade-long refusal of Ohio Republicans who control the General Assembly to pass a nondiscrimination bill — even in the face of public polling showing Ohioans generally favor the legislation — progress for LGBTQ rights has been made in Washington in the last couple of years.
Last week, the U.S. House passed the Equality Act, which updates federal civil rights laws to protect LGBTQ people at work and in housing, jury service, credit and other aspects of life. The bill faces hurdles in the U.S. Senate.
In June 2020, the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion written by conservative-leaning Justice Neil Gorsuch, concluded that federal civil rights law prohibits employers from discriminating against gay and transgender workers. That includes Ohio workers.
However, Ohio Fairness Act backers say the state law needs to be changed because the federal law only applies to the workplace and not to housing, public accommodation and other areas that their bill covers.
Furthermore, the federal law only applies to workplaces with 15 or more employees.
“Ohio’s law kicks in when an employer employs four people,” said Siobhan Boyd-Nelson, Equality Ohio’s director of external relations. “So there’s actually greater protection under Ohio law.”
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