Razer, an openly gay man, grew up in the Bootheel in one of the state’s poorest counties and now represents one of its wealthiest. He’s even more distinctive as a politician not the least bit shy about standing up for his principles, and in particular for LGBTQ rights.
Billington, an openly straight man, is a freshman legislator, but one whose anti-LGBTQ credentials were legendary in southeast Missouri long before he ran for office. As a private citizen, Billington purchased TV ads in 2012 proclaiming that homosexuality kills more people than tobacco. Before that, he was so enraged when Massachusetts legalized gay marriage that he was moved to write a book railing against the sin of it all. Vice President Mike Pence looks like a drag queen next to this guy.
Razer confronted Billington on the floor of the House April 5 over the latter’s legislative pride and joy: House Bill 728, a measure to prohibit citizens or groups from filing “John Doe” lawsuits daring to challenge the display of religious symbols in public spaces. The encounter “sparked intense debate,” reported the Missouri Times. The sharp exchange is online at a theatre near you.
The ability to file a public-interest lawsuit anonymously is a long-established practice in Missouri that, as Razer observed, has protected non-mainstream individuals such as members of the LGBTQ community — especially in places like rural Missouri — as they seek judicial redress to right a wrong.
Or, as Billington sees it, as they hide “behind a cloak of secrecy to attack the rights of Missouri citizens.” In practice, HB 728 would carve out special protections for folks like Billington to impose their particular version of Christianity as the law of the land. After all, anyone challenging them would lose rights enjoyed by all other plaintiffs.
Whether that’s unconstitutional or merely unhinged is not clear, but there’s no doubt it’s unjustified. Razer was not alone in attacking the idiocy.
“What bothers me about your bill, is that you are saying never, ever, no matter what the circumstances are in the case, could a compelling interest be shown so that a judge could say, ‘Yeah, that makes sense, you can file anonymously,’” says Representative Gina Mitten (D-St. Louis), an attorney. “Should I have to file a lawsuit in my name if my life has been threatened?”
That’s the substantive question. But the fun part was when Razer cut through all the “religious liberty” hogwash to out the bill as particularly threatening to people like himself. After initial pleasantries, Razer provided context — over loud objections and “points of order” — that after coming out as gay, he was told by his mother that he wouldn’t be safe to return to his native Pemiscot County (not far from Billington’s Butler County).
He went on to point out the obvious: That people outside the mainstream should have access to the judicial system to protect their religious liberty without fear of intimidation. And then he started quoting Billington’s published words from his book, Election By Faith ’04:
“During the marriage debate, we were subject to this vile and disgusting display of absolute defiance of God’s commandments for weeks on end,” Billington wrote. “These alleged ‘couples’ sought ‘marriage’ across the nation. Sadly, there was no shortage of clergy willing to defy God’s scripture to gain favor with this perverted crowd.”
Razer also referenced Billington’s reference to gays as “Sodomites” whose “sins are much worse than other sins” because they cannot reproduce and thus must recruit, and that “homosexuality takes 30 years off of a person’s life.” Razer closed by noting that he didn’t think Billington would intentionally try to intimidate anyone, but added that the noxious Westboro Baptist Church had twice tweeted its support of him.
That drew a rejoinder from Representative David Gregory (R-St. Louis County). According to the Missouri Times, Gregory accused Razer of “mudslinging,” which he added was itself “an actual brutal attempt at intimidation.”
If I may, let the record show that the only way one can be the victim of “mudslinging” by quoting one’s own words — from one’s own book — is if one has published mud.
Naturally, Billington’s bill passed the House by a comfortable 102-43 margin (just three Republicans joined all Democrats in voting “no”). Whether it gets to the Senate floor remains to be seen. As Razer tells me, “You can’t believe how many hours we spend on stuff like this, knowing it’s going nowhere, just so the majority members can tell their constituents they got it passed, only to have the damn Senate kill it.” In this case, one would hope the courts would kill this ridiculous thing if the Senate does not.
As a footnote, Representative Ian Mackey (D-St. Louis County) echoes Razer’s sentiment, adding another fascinating angle, which he didn’t get to share on the House floor since he wasn’t called upon to speak: The hypocrisy of the Republicans who defied the Clean Election amendment’s sunshine-law provisions by insisting that they have to protect the anonymity of constituents who communicate with them. So people who write their representatives must be allowed their privacy, even if it sabotages the public’s right to know about any legislative business — even as those suing over church and state cannot possibly be allowed to make a case for their privacy within the legal system. Anonymity seems to be a selective right when it comes to the Right.
Mackey and Razer are bookends of sorts — two of the four openly LGBTQ members of the legislature.
Where Razer grew up in the tiny town of Cooter (population 400) and crossed west from southeast Missouri to Kansas City, Mackey grew up in even tinier Urbana (population 350) in southwest Missouri and moved east to St. Louis County from the Ozarks.
Both blend rural and urban sensibilities. And both told me this: They have encountered no open hostility, slurs or even unpleasantness from their fellow legislators, including Republican conservatives. Still, as Razer puts it: “People are nice to my face, we get along and they like working with me. But then they go back to their offices and write anti-LGBTQ legislation.”
Some of that legislative nonsense is obviously homophobic, such as HB 837, sponsored by Representative Hannah Kelly (R-Mountain Grove), which would prevent colleges and universities from enforcing anti-discrimination policies on religious groups on campuses. That bill is headed for the House floor, destined for passage there, although like HB 728, it’s more certain to send a political message than ultimately become law.
In both cases, the message is clear: “Religious liberty” and “discrimination against the LGBTQ community” are interchangeable concepts. And by implication, good state legislators like Greg Razer and Ian Mackey are not quite right.
I don’t think God would agree with that. But the good news, for Hardy Billington and his ilk, is that She’s probably more forgiving than they think.
Ray Hartmann founded the Riverfront Times in 1977 and recently returned to these pages as a columnist. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @rayhartmann