A House Republican leader is under fire for cutting off the testimony of Missouri NAACP President Rod Chapel during a public hearing on bills pertaining to Missouri discrimination law.
Chapel was testifying Monday night in opposition to a set of bills that he said would make it more difficult for employees to sue for discrimination. He began his testimony by citing several institutions that have endorsed the bills.
The committee chairman, Rep. Bill Lant, a Pineville Republican, asked Chapel to “please contain your speech to speaking on the bill.”
Chapel said his comments were related to the bill. He told the committee this was “nothing but Jim Crow.”
Shortly thereafter, Chapel’s microphone was shut off. Lant then thanked Chapel for his testimony. Chapel attempted to continue, but was not permitted to do so.
When Assistant House Minority Leader Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis Democrat, asked to be recognized to ask questions of Chapel, she was denied by Lant.
Mitten later released a statement calling Lant’s behavior “unprofessional” and “racist.”
“Jim Crow is alive and well in Missouri,” Mitten said in the statement. “Representative Lant just proved it.”
Lant could not be reached by The Kansas City Star for comment, but did release a statement later Tuesday afternoon. According to the statement, the committee now plans to hold a second public hearing.
“It is my responsibility to keep the discussion in our hearings focused on the bill under consideration,” Lant said in the statement. “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 commented on the hearing in a statement released Tuesday morning by the Legislative Black Caucus.
“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.
The House minority leader, Gail McCann Beatty, a Kansas City Democrat, asked that Lant be replaced as committee chairman in a letter to House Speaker Todd Richardson.
“A white man abused his power to stop a black man from expressing a contrary view, and on legislation that seeks to turn back the clock on Missouri’s anti-discrimination laws, no less,” McCann Beatty said in the letter. “This situation is simply dripping in irony.”
Gov. Eric Greitens addressed the St. Louis County NAACP on Tuesday afternoon at a previously scheduled event, but did not mention the bills or the controversy. He also did not take questions from the media.
The bills being heard Monday night are included in a set of proposed changes to Missouri’s laws governing employer discrimination.
Currently, those wishing to sue their employers for discrimination claims must prove that a protected status was a contributing factor in their termination. The proposed bills change the language from “contributing factor” to “because of.”
Proponents of the bills say the change in language brings Missouri on par with national standards and protects employers from frivolous suits.
But others, like Chapel, think the language change sets the burden of proof too high, substantially lowering discrimination protection for minorities.