Prizm News / March 1, 2018 / By Bob Vitale

A growing list of backers and a hearing at the Statehouse boost prospects for an LGBTQ nondiscrimination law in Ohio.



By Bob Vitale

It’s not every day that businesses line up asking for government regulation.

But 287 Ohio entities, from corner coffee shops to giants like Procter & Gamble and Abercrombie & Fitch, are putting their collective clout behind efforts to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s nondiscrimination laws.

It’s not just a matter of fairness anymore, although the businesses, nonprofits, universities and associations behind Ohio Business Competes do talk about valuing diversity and fostering inclusion.

This time around, Ohio lawmakers are taking a $5 billion risk if they ignore advocates’ pleas to join other states that have barred discrimination against LGBTQ people in employment, housing and public accommodations. Columbus is one of 20
cities still under consideration as a location for Amazon’s second North American headquarters, and the retail giant has told suitors that its criteria include “a compatible cultural and community environment,” as well as “the presence and support of a diverse population.”

And many other employers—and employees—consider a state’s social climate a huge factor in weighing where locate. 

“We believe the absence of statewide anti-discrimination protections puts our region and our state at a disadvantage,” Holly Gross, vice president of government relations for the Columbus Chamber of Commerce, told members of the Ohio House Committee on Government Accountability and Oversight at a Jan. 31 legislative hearing on what’s being called the Ohio Fairness Act.

Passage of the bill, though, Gross said, would help Ohio compete for “mega economic development projects.” Both the Columbus Chamber and the Ohio Chamber, which represents 8,000 businesses in the state, support the nondiscrimination bill.

State Rep. Nickie Antonio, D-Lakewood, who has introduced an LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination bill during every General Assembly session since her first term in 2011, says such support has given the bill momentum.

The business case for a statewide law is that employers will suffer in their efforts to hire and retain workers if Ohio is not seen as a welcoming place. Will a bi Procter & Gamble employee in New York, for instance, want to transfer to Cincinnati if she and her girlfriend could be kicked out of their suburban apartment? Will a queer college professor from California take a job at Ohio State University if they know businesses in much of the state can turn them away?

“We’ve talked in the past about the economic impact of nondiscrimination,” Antonio says. “It hasn’t necessarily been picked up and talked about in depth the way it has this time.”

The January hearing on the Ohio Fairness Act marks the furthest such a proposal has advanced at the Statehouse since 2009, when a nondiscrimination bill won passage in the House but was ignored by the Senate.

The hearing this year doesn’t guarantee a vote in either chamber. And while recent developments are encouraging to bill backers, there are reasons for pessimism, too.

Antonio has 17 cosponsors for her bill, but not one is a Republican, and the GOP controls the Ohio House. And although Gov. John Kasich promised last year to look at the bill because “I don’t want anyone being discriminated against because they happen to be gay,” Antonio says the governor’s office has yet to answer her request to discuss the issue.

Stef Goldberg, a campaign consultant for Ohio Business Competes, says businesses have long been out front on nondiscrimination. Indiana and North Carolina learned what happens when states fail to keep up.

In 2015, then-Gov. Mike Pence signed into law an Indiana bill that allowed businesses to cite religious beliefs as a reason to refuse service to people they don’t like. In 2016, a new anti-transgender law in North Carolina required people to use the public restrooms that match the gender on their birth certificates.

Reaction against both states was fierce. Corporations canceled plans to expand in Indiana, and the NBA canceled plans to host its 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte.

“Everything that happened the last few years in North Carolina and Indiana made businesses in Ohio say, ‘Not in our state,’” Goldberg said.