For years he taught certified nursing assistants in southwest Missouri, and the fact that he was gay was no secret. Since coming out of the closet in his 20s, the 63-year-old now says he refused to hide who he is.
But one day, his human resources director summoned him. There were concerns about some of the questions Urie was asking and procedures he was teaching, even though the textbooks and other materials he relied on were approved by state regulators. A colleague who wasn’t gay used the same material, Urie said, but didn’t appear to face similar questions.
Urie was let go, and says the reason he was given was that he brought “homosexuality into the workplace.”
“I was fired for being gay,” he said. “If I was straight, it wouldn’t have been an issue.”
Urie’s former employer said in a statement that it does not discuss personnel matters, but added that sexual orientation of an employee is never a factor in hiring or firing.
Whatever cost Urie his job, no law would prevent an employer from legally firing him for being gay.
No state law explicitly protects workers from discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation or gender identity. That means people can be fired from their job, evicted from their apartment or thrown out of a restaurant for being gay or being perceived as gay.
For the last 13 years, legislation has been introduced in Missouri that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in the state’s Human Rights Act, alongside race, religion, ethnicity, gender and age, among other categories.
Until this year, efforts to broaden those protected classes to include sexuality got little or no traction.
In the final hour of the 2013 legislative session, however, things changed.
In a historic vote, the Senate approved the nondiscrimination bill 19-11, with nine Republicans joining with every Democrat in support. But with only 30 minutes left before the constitutionally mandated adjournment, the House did not take up the measure for a vote.
Senate Minority Leader Jolie Justus, a Kansas City Democrat and the state’s only openly gay senator, called the Senate vote “a turning point for the legislature.”
“We’ve always been on defense on these issues, but this sent a signal that most Missourians and most Americans now understand that the (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community isn’t trying to seek out special rights,” she said. “We’re just trying to have the same rights as everybody else.”
Like Missouri, Kansas does not have a law explicitly prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Only 16 states and the District of Columbia do.
About a dozen cities and counties in Missouri — including Kansas City and Jackson County — have their own local ordinances in place. The federal government offers no such protections.
The argument against expanding discrimination protections in Missouri has historically focused on the impact it could have on business.
House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican, has long opposed the change for fear it would “encourage more litigation on our Missouri employers and job creators.”
During Senate debate on the idea, Sen. Will Kraus worried that by expanding discrimination protections, “We’re opening up a can of worms.”
“If we pass this and you fire someone that you knew was gay, they will then say they are a protected class,” said Kraus, a Lee’s Summit Republican. “You will increase lawsuits against businesses.”
Lynne Bratcher, an employment law attorney from Kansas City, believes that’s unlikely. She compares the current debate to a similar one over sexual harassment laws 20 years ago. Over time, she said, the number of lawsuits actually declined as businesses became more aware of the issue.
“The same thing will happen with discrimination based on sexual orientation,” she said. “People will have better business practices, workplaces will be more welcoming and there won’t be more lawsuits because businesses will evolve.”
One of the biggest issues that must be overcome, Justus said, is a lack of public awareness that such protections aren’t already in place.
According to a poll released earlier this month by Small Business Majority, a national nonprofit advocacy group, roughly 72 percent of Missouri small-business owners didn’t realize it’s legal to fire or refuse to hire someone because he or she is gay, lesbian or transgender.
But a lack of awareness doesn’t mean the problem doesn’t exist, Justus said.
“I get one or two phone calls a month from individuals asking for a lawyer because they were fired for being gay or transgender,” she said. “I hear from people every month that were turned away from a hotel or bed and breakfast because the owners didn’t realize it was a gay couple who made the reservation.”
But one of the biggest reasons the law needs to change is to help those who are too afraid to come forward, she said, out of fear of the repercussions of being outed as gay.
“People shouldn’t have to live in fear of being who they are,” Justus said. “It’s wrong that you can be fired simply because of who you love.”