Ohio Fairness Act fills hearing room with advocates, business groups

11-year-old Sean Miller speaks at a committee hearing on the Ohio Fairness Act. The bill would include sexual orientation and gender identity or expression in the list of covered characteristics in Ohio Civil Rights Law. Screenshot from The Ohio Channel.

It wasn’t the many hordes of people that crowded into a Statehouse hearing room that got people’s attention on Tuesday. It wasn’t even the more than 250 testimonies filed on the issue at hand.

It was the 11-year-girl bending the microphone so she could reach it, telling her story of being bullied by kids and adults alike. It was her perspective on why she should be able to live in Ohio under the protection of law that brought tears to legislators’ and attendees’ eyes.

Sean Miller told the House Civil Justice Committee how she felt when a teacher singled her out for wearing a pink backpack as a kindergartner. It was then that she began to feel the pressure of gender roles.

Her mother had to call around to school districts to see if they would accept the fact that her child was a transgender girl. When Miller reported bullying and discrimination to her principal, the school administrator said there were no grounds to protect the young student based on her gender identity.

“Having an adult tell you that she will not protect you and that you are not safe is horrifying,” Miller told the committee.

Under the current Ohio Civil Rights Law, sexual orientation and gender identity are not “covered characteristics” for which protections are a legal right. The Civil Rights Law is in place to prohibit discrimination in the workplace, in housing decisions like the lease of an apartment or purchase of real estate, and other public accommodations.

The covered characteristics named in the law are “race, color, religion, age, sex, familial status, marital status, military status, national origin, ancestry, or disability.”

But the movement to add to that list is strong; so strong in fact, that the committee is scheduling a second day for proponent testimony due to an overwhelming response.

According to committee chair Stephen Hambley, R-Brunswick, as of Tuesday, 278 pieces of testimony had been submitted, though not all of them would be presented in person to the committee.

Along with personal stories of how the Ohio Fairness Act would impact lives, the committee heard from local chambers of commerce, heads of business agencies, and an attorney who specializes in labor and employment-based law.

Attorneys and business representatives were asked mainly about the skepticism some have of the bill, saying it could be damaging to businesses, including added expenses for the mediation of more discrimination claims.

“If you’re treating them fairly and providing them equal opportunity, that is what creates a more hospitable business environment and leads to better business in general,” said Leigh Anne Benedic, of the firm Porter Wright Morris & Arthur, LLP.

Steve Brown, of the real estate trade organization Ohio Realtors, was asked how he and his colleagues would treat a 23-year-old man without any debt, who had been turned away by other realtors because of mere assumptions about the man.

“I would love to have an opportunity to meet with this fellow,” Brown said. “Why? Well, it’s good business, we’re going to sell him a house, and he is going to be able to enter into that American dream.”

Opponents of the bill will have the opportunity to testify in a later committee hearing, but groups like Citizens for Community Values came out against the bill, and its companion bill in the Senate, as soon as it was introduced.

CCV President Aaron Baer called the House bill “the single greatest threat to religious freedom, parental rights, and the privacy and safety of women and children.”

For Sean Miller, the Ohio Fairness Act is a long time coming, and the result of promises made to her and others in the LGBTQ Ohio community for years.

“The time for promising has passed,” she said. “Please act.”