JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. - "The Republicans want to undermine and turn back the clock on equal rights," freshman state Rep. Karla May (D-57) told activists and reporters as they packed into state Capitol hearing room #2 for a Missouri Employee and Human Rights Coalition press conference here February 15.
May, a member of Communications Workers of America Local 6300 and a leader in the St. Louis Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU), said Republican-proposed changes to the Missouri Non-Discrimination Act were like "Jim Crow laws and Black codes."
She added, "We shouldn't even entertain a bill that tramples the legacy of those who lost their lives fighting for equal opportunity."
The bills in question, House Bill 205 and Senate Bill 188, would require a higher burden of proof in discrimination cases, would decrease or eliminate jury-awarded punitive damages, eliminate individual liability and make it easier for businesses to fire whistleblowers.
Former St. Louis City Sheriff's Deputy Jacques Hughes, who is African American, spoke at the press conference. He told participants that a noose was hung outside a holding cell by a white officer, Lt. Charlie Kraft, in 2006.
Hughes said that when he got there, "Kraft had removed the noose from the ceiling and was holding it in his hand."
"Now, I'm a grown man, but I got to say, the first thing that struck my heart was fear," said Hughes. "I automatically started backing up. There was a knot in my stomach and a bitter taste in my mouth. The next emotion, though, was anger. I was seething. I turned around and walked away."
Hughes spoke to the department's internal affairs unit about the incident, but no action was taken. Eventually, Hughes and another African American officer, William "Pat" Hill, filed a suit against the Sheriff's Department charging that it had tolerated a "racially hostile" work environment.
In retaliation, the department moved Hill to the graveyard shift and Hughes was suspended for missing two days of work (though he was using vacation time) due to meetings related to the case. Hughes was later fired for violating a department residency rule. He was the first to be penalized under the rule in 18 years, although other officers also live outside of the city.
In September 2010, a St. Louis jury awarded Hughes $125,000 and Hill $25,000 in compensatory damages. They were also awarded $350,000 each in punitive damages.
However, a federal judge cut $550,000 from the total punitive damages settlement, claiming the amount was "excessive and shocks the conscience." He said $75,000 for each plaintiff was enough to "punish and deter" future discrimination.
"It is hard to talk about," Hughes told the press conference. "I don't want to relive it. It has affected my wife, my church and my neighbors. It is very debilitating. It isn't about money. It's about recovery."
HB 205 would impose caps on damages (essentially encouraging discrimination by allowing employers to plan for a specific pricetag, the coalition says). It would also direct the state courts to base their decisions on federal court rulings. However, according to the coalition, this would undermine local and state jury decisions - which is what happened in Hughes' case.
Additionally, HB 205 and SB 188 would require that individuals who have been discriminated against prove that their race, sex or disability were the "motivating factor" in their adverse employment conditions. The bills will also likely threaten current federal funding for the Missouri Commission on Human Rights.
In her closing remarks, Rep. May said, "I urge you to not let this happen. We cannot allow this."
Republicans have majorities in both the Missouri House and Senate.
Missouri PROMO, a lesbian-bisexual-gay-transgender rights organization, held its lobby day on February 15 as well. Participants set their sights on advancing equal rights by expanding the Missouri Non-discrimination Act to include LGBT people, and passing anti-bullying legislation that includes protections for LGBT students.
Current laws do not include LGBT-specific language.
Kim Hutton, a soft-spoken St. Charles mom, told the People's World about her 7-year-old transgender son. She pulled out a photo of her son and said, "Parents need to listen to their children."
Standing outside a lawmaker's office, she continued, "He is our son. We adore him. We love him. We are going to follow his lead. It is a big mistake to tell children who they should be. We have to love him for who he is. He is a boy in a girl's body."
"In school awkwardness prevented frank dialog with teachers and faculty," Hutton said. However eventually, she said, she was able to encourage local gender identity training.
PROMO's anti-bullying legislation would require training for educators, and implement a model policy on bullying produced by the Missouri State Board of Education that would be enforced on school property, at school functions and on school buses.
While the subject of gender identity is uncomfortable for many people, Hutton said, "You can't advance what you don't talk about."
State Rep. Stacey Newman (D-73) greeted PROMO activists in the Capitol rotunda. She said, "This is about equality and justice for everyone."