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March 01--When Kevin Engler first met Jolie Justus, he introduced himself as the "redneck homophobe who banned gay marriage."
He was trying to break the ice.
Justus, an openly gay Democrat from Kansas City, had just been elected to her first term in the state Senate. Engler, a Republican from southeast Missouri, wasn't far removed from sponsoring the bill that ultimately led to the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.
That tactic worked. Eight years later, the two had grown to be close friends inside and outside the Capitol.
They also became allies on at least one effort near and dear to their hearts: banning discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Missourians.
"As a Christian, I still oppose same-sex marriage," Engler said. "But we shouldn't be persecuting people. That's not Christian."
Under current Missouri law, a person can be fired from a job, evicted from an apartment or kicked out of a restaurant for being gay or being perceived to be gay.
Never before has the effort to change that stood better odds in Missouri than this year. Partly, that's evidence of shifting public attitudes. It's also partly, lawmakers say, the way Justus has charmed and impressed her colleagues.
It's one thing to wave off concerns about gay rights in the abstract. It's another to dismiss the views of a colleague who challenged you honestly on a tax bill, compromised to pass the budget or teamed with you on some pet project -- and also happens to be lesbian.
"She allows her fellow senators to understand how the issue of discrimination affects people firsthand," Engler said, "from someone they know and like."
Momentum for change comes from the "vast number of people who have come out to their friends, family and loved ones," Justus said. "They are the ones changing people's hearts and minds on this issue."
At the same time, Justus acknowledges the effect of having an openly gay member of the Missouri Senate.
"When you're in the room," the lawmaker said, "people are less likely to be talking about you and more likely to be talking to you."
The perception of the cultural clash on gay rights is that of two sides shouting past each other with no hope for common ground.
In the Missouri Senate, the reality is much milder.
It's Justus talking with Sen. Ed Emery, a guy perceived as warm-hearted who earnestly believes that acceptance of homosexuality is the sort of thing that topples civilizations.
"These aren't easy issues. There are passions on both sides," said Emery, a Republican from southwest Missouri. "But I have a great deal of respect for Sen. Justus."
Public attitudes may be evolving, Emery said, but many employers, landlords and others still anchor their sense of right and wrong in religious teachings. Those people find the prospect of hiring openly gay workers or housing same-sex couples a moral affront.
"They believe they are better off in business if they acknowledge the standards that are expressed in their biblical world view," Emery said.
History shows that great civilizations fall, he said, when they begin to accept "what we used to call sexual perversion."
"It's hard when you see that again and again in history to say there are no consequences," he said. "You say, 'What's the big deal?' Well, the big deal is every civilization that has ever met its end, whether it was the cause or not, there's evidence that it was a part of their latter days."
Justus is unlikely to win Emery over to her thinking, but the civility of their relationship is part of a legislative alchemy that suggests a gay rights bill stands a chance even in a Missouri legislature still dominated by conservative lawmakers.
For 14 years, a group of advocates and lawmakers have tried to pass legislation to include sexual orientation and gender identity alongside things like race, gender, religion and age in the state's Human Rights Act.
Last year, in a historic vote in the final hour of the legislative session, nine Republicans joined 10 Democrats in passing the bill out of the Senate. It died in the House.
One of those nine Republicans was Wayne Wallingford, a first-term senator from Cape Girardeau. Then in late February, he introduced a bill allowing business owners to cite religious beliefs as a legal justification for refusing to provide service.
Critics decried the measure -- it mimicked similar bills in Kansas and Arizona -- as an attempt to legalize discrimination.
Wallingford said he still supports banning discrimination in the workplace, but he also wants stronger protection for religious convictions.
"There's nothing in my bill that talks about gays or lesbians or discrimination," Wallingford said Thursday in an interview with St. Louis radio station KMOX.
Justus' success last year in shepherding the nondiscrimimation bill through the Senate doesn't guarantee a clear path to victory.
Opposition to the idea isn't based solely on religion. Some have expressed concern that it will create costly, frivolous lawsuits for businesses.
"I'm not sure I'm ready for that," said Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican. "It has nothing to do with sexuality. I'm just not sure I'm ready to put it in firm law yet."
Many Republicans, even those who adamantly oppose same-sex marriage, are beginning to openly discuss their support for adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Missouri's human rights laws.
"As an employer, what I want is someone who is going to do a good job, be on time and look presentable," said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican. "Their sexuality isn't important."
Corporate America has widely adopted rules against discrimination of gay workers and regularly offers benefits to the same-sex partners of their employees. Overland Park-based Sprint Corp., for example, has offered health insurance and other employee benefits to same-sex couples since 2005.
Over the last decade, the landscape on gay rights has shifted rapidly across the nation. What was once considered unthinkable is becoming increasingly commonplace -- from gay men and women being allowed to serve openly in the military to legalized same-sex marriage in 17 states.
The tide is turning on the issue, said Rep. Stephen Webber, a Columbia Democrat sponsoring the nondiscrimination bill in the House.
Take Arizona, where the state Legislature passed a bill allowing business owners the right to refuse service to gay men, lesbians and other people on religious grounds. The bill created a massive backlash from the state's business community, along with national Republican politicians like former GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney, and even the National Football League, which was considering relocating the Super Bowl scheduled to be in the state next year.
The state's governor vetoed the measure.
"A few years ago, the opposition was eager to discuss this issue," Webber said. "Today, supporters are standing up and making their case. You can tell in politics who's winning an issue by who is being vocal about it."
Justus is in her final year as a state senator.
She admitted that it may still be too soon to expect the Missouri General Assembly to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation. But even if she leaves the Capitol without winning this battle, she said she's at peace.
"Even if it doesn't happen this year, it's going to happen," she said. "It's inevitable. So that gives me comfort in knowing I at least helped move the ball forward."
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