Spotlight On: Missouri's SB 916 and SJR 39

Two pieces of legislation (SB 916 and SJR 39) that would permit discrimination in the name of religion are racing through the Missouri legislature. Both bills were introduced last week and were already approved by Senate Committees. The Senate could debate these bills on the floor as early as today.   

SB 916 Would Expand the “Religious Organizations” that Are Exempt from the Missouri Human Rights Act’s Ban on Hiring Discrimination

The Missouri Human Rights Act currently prohibits employers from engaging in employment discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, national origin, sex, ancestry, age or disability.” And the law already exempts houses of worship and religious organizations from that bar on hiring discrimination. Some are arguing, however, that a recent Supreme Court decision, Farrow v. St. Francis Medical Center, has interpreted that exemption too narrowly. SB 916, therefore, would vastly expand the religious employer exemption to include universities, hospitals, “crisis pregnancy centers,” and other entities, even if they are not “connected or affiliated with a church.” If this bill passes, the college or hospital in your neighborhood, which may be the biggest employer in the area, would be allowed to discriminate in hiring. That is unfair, violates the spirit of religious freedom, and would threaten the ability of many Missourians to find and maintain a job.  

SJR 39 Would Enshrine Discrimination in the Missouri Constitution

SJR 39 would add a provision to the Missouri Constitution to allow businesses, taxpayer funded organizations, and individuals to ignore laws that conflict with their “sincere religious beliefs or practices concerning marriage between two persons of the same sex.” If passed, these entities and individuals could discriminate against same-sex couples. The resolution would also nullify local civil rights ordinances, like those in St. Louis and Kansas City, that protect LGBT Missourians.

Like SB 916, the bill tries to hide its real consequences by appearing to only to apply to “religious organizations.” But the bill then defines religious organization as any entity, including a “corporation” that “holds itself out to the public in whole or in part as religious and its purposes and activities are in whole or in part religious.” That definition could encompass any corporation that adopts a mission statement or makes a statement on religion. It would include a corporation like Hobby Lobby, even though it is a craft store. It also applies to religious non-profits, even if their programs and activities are paid for by taxpayer dollars.

This bill is similar to one in Georgia that recently attracted backlash from corporations and corporate leaders across the country. SJR 39, however, is even more egregious, as it seeks add the provision to the state constitution. And, like SB 916, this bill’s broad definition of “religious organization” would permit discrimination by social service providers. SJR 39 would allow a social service provider, like a homeless shelter, to refuse a gay couple in need of a place to stay. Even worse, if this homeless shelter receives state funds, this bill would prohibit the state from taking any action against the homeless shelter.

The discrimination allowed under SJR 39 is not limited to "religious organizations." This bill would add to the Missouri constitution the opportunity for any private business with a religious objection, such as a florist or baker, to refuse to provide services to same-sex couples who wish to fulfill their fundamental right to marriage. Even private businesses located in cities with LGBT protections would be permitted to ignore local nondiscrimination ordinances and discriminate against Missourians.

What’s Next

Both bills are making their way to the Senate for a vote. Stay tuned as we continue to update you on these bills’ progress in the Missouri legislature.