JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) — Missouri state senators early Wednesday gave initial approval to a measure that opponents have criticized as making it more difficult to sue for discrimination in the state and voted down protections for LGBT people.
Democrats railed against the bill on discrimination lawsuits for hours Tuesday before hammering out a compromise after midnight. It received initial approval in a voice vote.
Republicans and pro-business backers say it's now too easy to sue for discrimination in the state, but opponents argue the proposed change would allow discrimination to go unpunished.
"It's unfortunate that the Missouri Senate has taken the very first step in moving forward with Jim Crow legislation," Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel told reporters Wednesday. He added that the measure would allow people who "perpetrate or have violated the civil rights of others to remain free of any penalty for their conduct."
Senators also in a 20-10 vote killed a proposed amendment by Creve Coeur Democratic Sen. Jill Schupp to ban discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in employment, housing and public accommodations. Republican Sens. Caleb Rowden of Columbia and Ryan Silvey of Kansas City joined Democrats to support what's sometimes referred to as the Missouri Nondiscrimination Act.
The underlying legislation from Farmington Republican Sen. Gary Romine would require plaintiffs bringing discrimination lawsuits to prove that race, religion, sex or other protected status was the motivating factor for discrimination or being fired, not just a contributing factor.
While that would ramp up the burden of proof in discrimination cases compared to what's currently in place, that's not as strict as Romine's earlier proposal to require plaintiffs to prove their status as a protected class was the sole reason they were fired or harassed. The change was part of the bipartisan compromise.
"Our entire intent has never been to promote or support or allow discrimination in any place in this great state of Missouri," Romine told colleagues on the Senate floor before the vote. "Our intent in this bill is to make sure that we have a standard in the statutes that is fair to the employee and employer alike."
Other changes made to scale back the bill include taking out a proposed exemption to shield state agencies, such as public colleges and universities, from punitive damages. The latest version still includes caps on damages, but has a higher limit of $500,000 for businesses with more than 500 employees instead of the earlier plan for $300,000.
Even with those changes, Democrats and advocacy groups, including the NAACP and Empower Missouri, still voiced concerns about protection for whistleblowers and a proposed stop to lawsuits against co-workers.
The measure needs another vote of approval before it can move to the House, where similar legislation is pending.
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