State lawmakers could block changes to St. Louis anti-discrimination ordinance

2017-02-17 | St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Feb. 17--JEFFERSON CITY -- On the same day St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay signed a bill adding reproductive health decisions to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance, anti-abortion advocates made their way to the state Capitol in the hope state lawmakers would intervene.

The St. Louis bill, which took effect on Tuesday, bans employers and landlords from discriminating against women who have had an abortion, use contraceptives or are pregnant.

In a packed hearing room in Jefferson City on Tuesday night, a House panel considered legislation that St. Louis leaders say would strip away their local control, by blocking the city ordinance on the grounds that it inhibits the free speech and religious rights of alternative-to-abortion agencies.

Sometimes called "pregnancy resource centers" or "crisis pregnancy centers," the agencies often are established to counsel women against seeking abortions, as well as offering other services such as pregnancy tests and ultrasounds.

Helen Risse, who works at one such center based in St. Louis and St. Charles, said it hired employees on the condition that they couldn't refer women to abortion clinics.

Risse explained that she was afraid that the updated St. Louis ordinance will force her organization to drop that condition, or face lawsuits.

"Such referrals would be contrary to our mission and why we came into existence," said Risse, director of nursing at Our Lady's Inn. "I feel this was brought to the table to be coercive, to help people who don't understand what we're doing and why we're doing it."

Among the most vocal opponents to the St. Louis measure has been the Archdiocese of St. Louis, which already has threatened to go to federal court over it.

A spokeswoman from the Archdiocese said Tuesday that agencies could be fined for not employing anyone who publicly promotes abortion, that Catholic business owners could be fined for not including abortion coverage in their employee benefits and that the city could fine landlords who choose not to rent to anyone involved in the abortion industry.

But Alderman Christine Ingrassia, 6th Ward, a co-sponsor of the update to the ordinance, insists those fears are unfounded, because city lawmakers amended the bill to expressly exempt religious organizations from the requirements.

She said the maximum fine for violating the ordinance was $500.

"I think that there has been quite a bit of unfortunate misinformation about this bill," Ingrassia said. "And I think that a lot of the discrimination arguments were the same ones that we had when we protected the LGBT community, people of color and a variety of other protected classes."

Abortion has long been a hot issue for the Republican-led Missouri Legislature, where restrictions on the state's one remaining abortion clinic in St. Louis continue to be introduced, including a resolution this session that would abolish the practice altogether.

Democrats and abortion advocates contend that the House bill considered on Tuesday isn't about protecting alternatives to abortion agencies, but rather a move to pre-empt a local government from taking a political stance Missouri Republicans don't like.

Ingrassia said there was a "distinct possibility" that the state proposal, should it become law, would make the St. Louis board bill null and void.

"It's perfectly within the purview of the General Assembly to do that," said Sam Lee, a lobbyist for Campaign Life Missouri, who added that such intervention ensured "uniformity from one jurisdiction to another."

Lee pointed to legislation state lawmakers passed in 2015 prohibiting cities from setting their own minimum wage or banning plastic bags.

It made for a strange political role reversal for Republicans, who fought to rein in local action, and Democrats, who said the state proposal amounted to government intrusion.

Abortion-rights advocates also maintain that pregnancy resource centers disseminate inaccurate medical information without oversight or regulation, putting women at risk.

Sponsoring Rep. Tila Hubrecht, R-Dexter, said centers that did provide medical services had to do so in accordance with medical statutes.

"[This bill is] just upholding the rights of people to freely express their beliefs," she said.

Groups including the ACLU see it differently, saying pregnancy resource centers were expecting "First Amendment superpowers."

"We're all protected under the First Amendment," said Sara Baker, legislative and policy director for the ACLU of Missouri. "This creates a special class of protections for individuals that may not be giving accurate information."