Ohio school board debates sexual orientation rule

AP Statehouse Correspondent

Generic-empty-classroom-seatsCOLUMBUS, Ohio — A proposal to protect schoolteachers from being fired or otherwise treated differently on the basis of sexual orientation is dividing the state school board.

Backers of the proposed policy change told the Ohio Board of Education on Tuesday the move would encourage the hiring and retention of the brightest teachers and set an example of inclusion for gay, lesbian and transgender youths.

“No person who possesses the knowledge, skill and passion for teaching and who abides by the code of professional conduct should ever be treated differently simply because of his or her age, color, ancestry, national origin, race, gender, religion, disability or veteran status,” Ohio Education Association vice president Scott DiMauro told the board. “The same must hold true for sexual orientation.”

Columbus City Schools counselor Jimmie Beall recalled being fired from another district based on the administration’s suspicion she’s a lesbian.

“I was not fired because I was gay. I was not fired because I was a lesbian,” she told board members. “I was fired because there were questions about my sexual orientation. That’s scary. That means anybody who doesn’t fit into somebody else’s preconceived notion of what that identity should look like is suspect.”

At issue is a proposal by board member Stephanie Dodd to amend language in Ohio’s operating standards for schools on nondiscrimination to add sexual orientation to the list of protected classes.

Board member C. Todd Jones on Tuesday questioned whether adding such nondiscrimination language to the state’s education rules would impose unwanted requirements on parochial and Christian schools. He said the proposal “confronts directly another important freedom that is guaranteed in the United States: That’s free exercise of religion, the First Amendment.”

Jones said it is part of the board’s job in setting state education policy to weigh the needs of families sending children to secular public schools and to parochial schools, where religion is part of students’ educational experience.

“There are those who hold certain tenets of faith that would be contrary to a nondiscrimination provision,” he said.

Equality Ohio executive director Elyzabeth Holford testified that Republican Gov. John Kasich has already signed an executive order applied to state workers that opposes discrimination based on sexual orientation. She said this would be an extension of that sentiment.

“We need to make sure that we have the best and the brightest, and that includes all of us,” Holford said. “And the pool that we choose from is not one that we want to limit.”

Dodd said she first brought forward her proposal eliminating discrimination based on sexual orientation 14 months ago. It’s been moved from one committee to a different committee but has yet to get a vote. She said the proposal is designed not to interfere with the rights of religiously based institutions.

The debate came a day after a federal judge in Cincinnati overturned a portion of Ohio’s 2004 gay marriage ban, ruling that Ohio must recognize out-of-state marriages between same-sex couples. Opponents of the ban are pursuing a ballot measure that would seek to overturn it.

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