A bill that sets up a regulatory framework in Oklahoma for ridesharing programs such as Uber and Lyft passed the state Senate on Wednesday, but not before a provision protecting gay and transgender passengers from discrimination was removed.
The version of the "Oklahoma Transportation Network Company Services Act" that passed the Republican-controlled Senate on a 35-11 vote defines such companies as those that use a digital network or software application to connect passengers and drivers.
The House-passed version of the bill included language that prohibited the companies from discriminating against customers based on sexual orientation or gender identity. But Sen. Jason Smalley said he rewrote the bill to eliminate that language and allow private businesses to establish their own policies regarding discrimination.
"I believe if a private business owner wants to serve or not serve an individual, they have that purview right now," said Smalley, a Republican.
The new version of the bill faced fierce criticism from Sen. John Sparks, a Norman Democrat who tried unsuccessfully to amend the measure requiring any driver who wishes to discriminate against a customer based on sexual orientation or gender identity to post notice of such intent in a visible place on his or her vehicle and on the company's website.
"Why should you be able to discriminate?" Sparks said. "We're talking about a level of civil conduct in the marketplace. Society has figured out that when you enter the marketplace, you should have an expectation of being treated fairly."
Uber and Lyft, among the most popular ridesharing programs, already have policies in place that prohibit discrimination against customers based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
"Uber's policy is to serve every neighborhood, every driver and every person who needs a ride," company spokeswoman Jennifer Mullin said. The company will continue to enforce its current terms of service, "which make clear that discrimination in any form is not tolerated and will result in removal from the platform," she said.
Troy Stevenson, executive director of Freedom of Oklahoma, said in a statement that the group does not "understand why a member of the Oklahoma Legislature wants to remove protections for (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) Oklahomans from a bill that is specific to an industry that already protects them, in their corporate policies. Oklahomans do not believe in discrimination, and it is time for ideological law makers to quit trying to distract from the real problems of our state by attacking the LGBT community."