By Wes Duplantier
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Despite several lawmakers voicing fears about reversing decades of hard-fought civil rights gains, the Missouri House approved a measure that would change the rules for workplace discrimination cases heard in state court.
The bill would require workers who bring wrongful termination lawsuits to prove discrimination was a "motivating factor" -- not simply a contributing factor -- in the employer's action. The legislation also would apply to other wrongful discrimination actions, such as denying promotions.
The House's 89-68 vote came after several lawmakers spoke against the measure. Minority Leader Mike Talboy said the provisions would give employers less incentive to prevent discrimination.
"What you're doing with that is making that behavior easier to get away with," said Talboy, D-Kansas City.
Republicans argued that the change would match federal discrimination laws and make the state more business-friendly.
"This is a pushback against a liberal interpretation by our courts and this is an encouragement of what it takes to operate here in Missouri," said the bill's sponsor, Rep. Kevin Elmer, R-Nixa.
The measure approved Thursday would also cap the amount of punitive damages victims can recover. In cases where employers were found to have wrongfully discriminated, the legislation would tie punitive damages to a company's number of employees, with a maximum award of $300,000. Government bodies would not be liable for any punitive damages.
Rep. Clem Smith, D-St. Louis County, said Thursday that the legislation would create a "menu of discrimination," allowing employers to set a fixed cost on discriminatory actions.
"I think we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard and that we shouldn't regress," he said.
Republican supporters of the measure have said those changes would align Missouri laws with federal protections outlined in the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Democrats took issue with that, saying that the state should use a more stringent standard than one from a law written nearly 50 years ago.
Rep. John Diehl, R-St. Louis County, said those who support a change in Missouri's standards don't support discrimination, but rather want to make the state more economically competitive.
"If we're saying that this brings us back to the Jim Crow laws or the Civil War, that's patently and absurdly false," he said.
The Senate approved its own version of the legislation Wednesday in a 28-5 vote, which came about a week after Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal, D-St. Louis County, filibustered for 15 hours against the bill. She was in the House during Thursday's debate.
The House and the Senate must reconcile their bills before sending the legislation to Gov. Jay Nixon, who vetoed similar legislation last year, saying at the time that it would have rolled back decades of civil rights progress.
Nixon told members of The Associated Press and the Missouri Press Association during Thursday's annual Capitol media event that he would need to examine this year's legislation. However, he said, his position on the issue has not changed.
"We're going to have a diverse workplace. Our workplaces need to be places where folks can go without the fear of discrimination, and if they are discriminated against, have rights," Nixon said.
The House did not have a veto-proof margin in Thursday's vote, falling short of the 109 votes required. The measure in the Senate was supported by a veto-proof margin.
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