When it comes to strengthening LGBTQ protections in Missouri, the legislature has historically been a wasteland where attempts
to expand the state's anti-discrimination laws to protect sexual orientation and gender identity go to die.
But that still leaves the justice system as an alternate frontier for expanding those rights. On Wednesday, the Missouri Supreme Court is scheduled to hear two cases of alleged discrimination against gay and transgender plaintiffs.
The cases are significant because they represent cases of discrimination that are not covered by the language of Missouri's Human Rights Act. The state's conservative-dominated legislature has spent more than two decades thwarting efforts to expand its protections to include gay, lesbian and transgender residents
in addition to those discriminated against for their age, sex or race. Advocacy groups are hoping the state's highest court will finally shift the balance.
First, there's a case of teenage trans boy, identified in court documents R.M.A., whose mother sued the Blue Springs school district in 2014 over the district's refusal to allow her son use the boy's locker room.
According to court filings, R.M.A began identifying as male at age nine, and the school district near Kansas City went as far as updating its records to reflect R.M.A's new legal name. It also permitted him to participate in boys-only gym class and athletic activities. However, that permissiveness stopped at the locker room and bathroom; the district instead directed the student to use a unisex facility.
In response, the school asked a circuit judge to dismiss the lawsuit before trial — on the grounds that the Missouri Human Rights Act doesn't cover discrimination based on sexual identity. The district argued that the law's language only protects from discrimination against "gender-related traits" such as pregnancy.
A circuit judge agreed to dismiss the case, and in 2017 the Missouri Court of Appeals similarly ruled in favor of the school district. In the appellate ruling
, Judge Cynthia Martin noted that it wasn't the court's place to extend the law further than intended by the legislature.
"Our judicial role does not permit us to vary settled legislative intent based on evolving social sensitivities," Martin wrote. "Instead, we are bound by the state of the law as it currently exists."
But R.M.A.'s attorneys and other LGBTQ advocates appealed that ruling, arguing that the state law does, in fact, cover discrimination aimed trans individuals, and that R.M.A. should be legally permitted to argue their case against the school district at trial. The state's highest court agreed to hear the matter.
A second case scheduled to be heard tomorrow by the Missouri Supreme Court also challenges a narrow interpretation of the Missouri's anti-discrimination laws. In Lampley v. Missouri Commission on Human Rights
, a gay employee of the Missouri Department of Social Services alleges that the department and two supervisors discriminated and retaliated against him and a co-worker after they filed complaints under the state’s Human Rights Act.
The state employee, Harold Lampley, contends that his superiors discriminated against him because he "does not exhibit the stereotypical attributes of how a male should appear and behave."
Filing a complaint with the Missouri Commission on Human Rights is the first step an employee takes to eventually move their case to a formal lawsuit, but the commission threw out Lampley's complaint in 2016, ruling that it wasn't authorized to handle claims based on sexual orientation.
In October 2017, however, an appellate court made a groundbreaking decision in favor of Lampley
, ruling that Missouri law does bar employers from discriminating based on gender stereotypes.
The commission appealed, and now the Missouri Supreme Court will take a crack at the case, parsing what the state discrimination law covers, and what it doesn't.
So, what happens if the Missouri Supreme Court rules in favor of a broader interpretation of existing state law? In theory, it would create precedent that the law's current language
can be interpreted to include gender identity and sexual orientation, thus allowing individuals like Lampley and R.M.A. to pursue litigation.
"It’s about more than bathrooms," said the ACLU of Missouri in a press release earlier this month
. The group has filed briefs in both cases, in support of R.M.A. and Lampley.
"Every student in Missouri deserves a fair chance to succeed in school," the statement continued, "and all Missourians deserve the right to employment free from discrimination based on sex stereotypes."
For more background and briefs related to the cases, check out the Missouri Supreme Court's official summaries here
Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com
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