A Missouri GOP lawmaker this week silenced a NAACP official speaking against legislation that would limit the state’s nondiscrimination protections. The incident once again highlighted racial divisions in a state that has been at the center of the Black Lives Matter movement.
HB 552, sponsored by Rep. Kevin Austin (R-Springfield), would require plaintiffs to “bear the burden of proving” that their race, religion, sex, or other protected status was the “motivating factor” for an employer’s mistreatment or termination.
Business groups have argued that it’s too easy for workers in Missouri to take legal action against discriminatory workplace policies. Karen Buschmann, vice president of communications for the Missouri Chamber of Commerce, wrote in the Missouri Times last month that HB 522 would “reduce the frequency of frivolous lawsuits” regarding workplace discrimination.
Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel testified Monday against the bill during a hearing of the Missouri House special committee on litigation reform, and said that the business interests supporting the bill were “all united here in favor of expanding discrimination.”
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At this point in Chapel’s testimony, committee chair Rep. Bill Lant (R-Pineville) told Chapel to “please contain your speech to speaking on the bill.”
Chapel responded that he was speaking about the bill. “This is nothing but Jim Crow,” Chapel said. “You cannot legalize discrimination on an individual basis and call it anything else.”
Chapel’s microphone was shut off moments later. Lant then thanked Chapel for his testimony before dismissing him and asking for other witnesses. Rep. Gina Mitten (D-Richmond Heights) protested the committee chair’s actions, but Lant denied her request to ask Chapel questions.
A video of the incident was posted online by Progress Missouri, a progressive advocacy organization.
Pamela Merritt, a Missouri-based activist and co-founder of ReproAction, told Rewire that she was shocked at a lawmaker’s attempt to suppress the voices of marginalized communities.
“I’m outraged that a person testifying before a committee was silenced,” Merritt said in an email. “I’m even more outraged by the message this silencing sends, that Black people and people of color will be denied respect, access to legislators, and the ability to share their voice and attempt to prevent our oppression.”
Chapel issued a statement the next morning, accusing the committee chair of dismissing input from the communities that would be most affected by the weakening of nondiscrimination laws.
“The Chair’s refusal to let me speak ensured that not only my voice, but all voices of those protected by anti-discrimination laws in the state were silenced,” Chapel said, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
After the hearing, Mitten posted on Twitter that she was “ashamed for my colleagues.”
Lant responded to criticisms of his actions with a statement, where he admitted to failing to provide a public forum for open debate on public policy.
“It is my responsibility to keep the discussion in our hearings focused on the bill under consideration,” Lant said. “At the same time, it’s vitally important that our public hearings provide a forum for a free and open dialogue on the issues. In my effort to keep discussion in our Monday hearing germane to the bill, I prevented the exchange of ideas and viewpoints that is essential to our legislative process.”
Chapel has called for Lant to be replaced, as has House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty (D-Kansas City). However, Republican House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) said that he will not demote Lant.
“The legislature owes Chapel and public apology,” ReproAction’s Merritt said. “Rep. Lant should be held accountable by his peers.”