JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) – Missouri senators are weighing whether to pass a bill to make it harder to sue for discrimination, an effort that Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel said Tuesday would expand intolerance in the state.
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At issue is a measure that would require plaintiffs bringing such lawsuits to prove that race, religion, sex or other protected status was the sole reason for discrimination or being fired, rather than just a contributing factor. It also would prevent employees from suing other workers and cap damages in discrimination lawsuits. State agencies, including public colleges and universities, no longer would face punitive damages in such lawsuits under the latest proposal.
Republican lawmakers and pro-business groups such as the Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry argue it’s too easy to sue for discrimination in the state. But Democrats, trial attorneys and advocacy groups such as the NAACP are slamming the proposed change as a way to allow discrimination without legal consequences.
Black lawmakers and others say its passage would undo progress made to end racial segregation and other discriminatory policies.
“You cannot legalize discrimination on an individual level,” Chapel told reporters hours before senators debated the bill Tuesday.
The measure under consideration in the Senate is similar to a House bill that Chapel briefly spoke against in a public hearing in mid-February before the committee chairman interrupted him and called on someone else to speak. Chapel called that discrimination, and Republican Rep. Bill Lant later said he would hold another hearing to allow him to continue speaking. That has not yet been scheduled.
Republican Sen. Gary Romine, who is sponsoring the Senate version, said past court rulings moved Missouri away from federal court standards for discrimination lawsuits. On Monday, he said the current standard requires a minimal burden of proof and “holds an employer liable for actions that would have occurred without the impermissible act.”
He told colleagues on the Senate floor Tuesday that a higher standard is needed to appropriately deal with “actual discrimination.”
An employment discrimination lawsuit filed against Romine’s rent-to-own furniture business is pending. When asked by a Democratic colleague on the Senate floor Monday whether sponsoring the measure is a conflict of interest, Romine said he previously proposed changing state discrimination lawsuit policies in December 2014, roughly four months before his business was sued.
Senators have not yet voted on Romine’s bill. A proposal to amend the measure to add gender identity and sexual orientation to classes protected under the Missouri Human Rights Act also has not yet come to a vote.
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