House buries Democrats’ call to lead the way on sexual-orientation protections

House Minority Leader Todd Rutherford (right) led the call Tuesday for South Carolina to take the lead in protecting gays and lesbians from discrimination.

COLUMBIA — Democrats’ push for South Carolina to be a leader in enacting sexual-orientation protections ran into a brick wall in the Republican-controlled House on Tuesday when the measure was sent back to committee for further study.

Before the vote, Democrats held a news conference in the Statehouse lobby at which lawmakers said the state should send a clear message to businesses and residents that discrimination based on sexual orientation won’t be tolerated in South Carolina.

House Democratic Leader and the bill’s author, Todd Rutherford, was joined by fellow Democratic legislators and dozens of supporters of the bill to urge immediate passage. Last week, Rutherford successfully withdrew the bill from the House Judiciary Committee which put the bill on the uncontested calendar, where it was taken up Tuesday. Republicans quickly moved to recommit the bill to the Judiciary Committee as social conservative leader and potential presidential candidate Rick Santorum observed, waiting to be introduced in the House gallery.

The Republican-dominated House voted 79-34 to refer the measure for more study.

Rutherford and other Democrats, including Reps. James Smith and Gilda Cobb-Hunter, said South Carolina had an opportunity to be the first state in the Southeast to pass an anti-discrimination law ensuring gays and lesbians have legal protections against discrimination.

The law was introduced in response to a religious freedom measure in Indiana that critics worried could be used by businesses to discriminate against patrons. Indiana and Arkansas, which was considering a similar law, subsequently amended the language of the laws amid calls for boycotts by private companies and civil rights groups.

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“This is the beginning of the civil rights movement in South Carolina,” Rutherford said. “People say you can’t do that (discriminate). The sad fact is you can and it needs to stop.”

Smith said the firing of a police chief last year in Latta was a sign the law is needed. The police chief of the small town, Crystal Moore, said she was fired for being openly gay. The town rallied around her and the public outcry resulted in the town rehiring her, according to media reports.

The bill would add sexual orientation and gender to a list of protected classes, barring hotels, motels, restaurants and boardinghouses, as well as Realtors and landlords, from discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.