Missouri Gov. Mike Parson — who replaced former Gov. Eric Greitens June 1 — declined to apologize, but he did attempt to clarify his position on LGBT rights this week.
While serving as lieutenant governor, Parson told the Midwest Baptist publication Word & Way last year that while he didn’t believe Missourians who were gay or transgender should face job discrimination.
“Do I think that you should go out there and fire them for that? I don’t,” Parson said.
But, because he is a Christian — and this is what Missouri Democrats pounced on — Parson also said, “I’m old school. I know how I believe. I know what’s going to happen to these people.”
Does that mean Parson believes LGBT people would be damned to hell?
Stephen Webber, chairman of the Missouri Democratic Party, demanded a clarification. Webber said in a statement released Monday that he wants to hear the state’s new governor “state unequivocally that LGBTQ Missourians are not going to hell.”
Webber said that would be one way for Parson to show he was serious about bringing Missouri back together after the divisive split caused by the Greitens sex scandal.
“Today is a time for a fresh start for our state and to recommit ourselves — each and every one of us, including you in the galleries — we must work together for a better Missouri,” Parson told an audience of state lawmakers Monday.
The next day, Parson told a Springfield News-Leader reporter he welcomed a chance to explain what he said in the Word & Way article. But didn’t come close to what Webber wanted.
“I don’t believe in discrimination against anyone,” Parson said. “My personal Christian beliefs tell me I don’t believe that’s a way of life that I believe in. But as far as anyone that lives that, that chooses to live that, that’s their choice.”
“I’ve been on the record as making sure that there was no discrimination against them and voted for that,” he continued. “So I think it’s important for people to know that.”
The controversy over what Parson meant is more than simple political sound and fury because LGBT Missourians may not be worried about going to hell as much as they’re afraid of losing their jobs because of their sexuality.
So Parson’s explanation of his statement does signify something because the LGBT lobby’s friends in Jefferson City got closer than ever this past session by winning state House approval of a proposal to protect gay people from job discrimination.
Talk about perseverance: The Missouri Nondiscrimination Act was first filed 20 years ago. At the end of the just-concluded legislative session it was approved by a Missouri House committee, with no time left for full House debate.
“It absolutely is a victory because this is only the second time in the 20-year history that we’ve been introducing this bill, and let’s be honest: this is a bill that says, ‘You know what? Maybe it’s not a good idea to fire someone just because they’re gay,’” one of the bill’s sponsors, Rep. Greg Razer (D), told KOMU.
But some House Republicans said the bill only made it out of committee because the vote was conducted before some GOP committee members were seated.
“This is crap,” the Kansas City Star reported GOP Rep. Gary Cross shouted as he arrived outside the hearing room after the vote. “This is an injustice. Shame on those people.”
Razer promised to be “back for year 21 next year.”
Five years ago, while still a state senator, Parson voted in favor of the bill, but gay rights advocates wondered in 2018 if he’d still be willing to push the legislation as governor, given his condemnation of homosexuality in Word & Way.
“(Parson) ascends to Missouri’s highest office with a fair amount of goodwill and no doubt will be granted a grace period of sorts,” the Kansas City Star opined June 7. “With one exception: When it comes to human rights and civil rights, there is no space for waffling or for easing into the job.”
“Everyone has the right to believe what they want about sexual orientation based on their faith,” the Star concluded. “But as a public servant, Parson must treat all Missourians equally and ensure that the state’s laws do the same.”
However, Parson will be feeling pressure from the other side of the debate, too: those concerned that their religious freedom would be violated by the language of the legislation that Republican Rep. Nick Schroer complained was “too broad” will be arguing against the bill in the next session.
Schroer said he also had legitimate concerns about how “unfair treatment” would be defined and the impact of the new law on small businesses.
“If I could wave a perfect wand and get discrimination out of the workforce in all of these situations, I would,” Schroer said. “But as a general counsel of several small businesses across this state, I do have a vested interest in making sure that this isn’t going to promote in any way frivolous lawsuits.”
But Razer said there was no way those concerned with religious freedom would be able to stop the momentum gained in the last legislative session because “history’s going to lead us on this.”
“Eventually the state’s going to do the right thing,” Razer said, “and we’re going to keep pressing until we force the state to do the right thing, which is to protect all Missourians against discrimination.”