A bill that would grant Kansans the same legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity that they receive for race and religion was introduced by a House Democrat on Tuesday.
Rep. Louis Ruiz, D-Kansas City, introduced the bill a month after the Kansas House passed a bill that critics said would have legalized discrimination against gay and lesbian couples.
“What’s our message when we have these type of discriminatory bills that come out at either the federal or the state level? We’re defeating our own purpose as a country that wants to be inclusive. To me, this is a no-brainer,” said Ruiz, who is the ranking minority member on the Federal and State Affairs Committee, which initially passed HB 2453. He was one of its fiercest critics.
His bill, which does not have a number yet, would extend the same legal protections that prohibit discrimination based on religion, gender and race to sexual orientation and gender identity. This would make it illegal for a company to refuse to hire or serve someone for being gay or transgender, just as it is illegal to refuse to hire or serve someone based on skin color.
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Kansas has a law that protects sexual orientation and gender identity for state employment, but it has no further protections.
Ruiz, a practicing Catholic, said he feels his religious beliefs are already protected, but that gay and lesbian Kansans do not enjoy the same protection under current state law.
The Kansas Catholic Conference has been one of the main organizations pushing for stronger religious freedom protections.
At a Senate hearing on religious freedom last week, Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, questioned whether gay Kansans face the type of discrimination that Ruiz’s bill would prohibit.
“There is no such discrimination. We’ve been having hearings in the Kansas Legislature on religious freedom legislation for four years,” Schuttloffel said. “And in four years of hearings, the other side has never brought forward a single example of people being discriminated anywhere in America just because they’re gay.”
He contended that extending anti-discrimination protections to LGBT groups would threaten religious liberty. “It’s entirely the point of that kind of legislation to force people to violate their religious beliefs. That’s the whole point,” Schuttloffel said.
However, Thomas Witt, spokesman for Equality Kansas, the LGBT rights group that spearheaded opposition against HB 2453 and also called for sexual orientation legal protections at last week’s hearing, said the legislation is definitely necessary.
“If you look at the bills that people are trying to pass that would permanently enshrine open discrimination against gay and lesbian Kansans, can you think of a better reason why we should introduce something (like this bill)?” Witt said at the Capitol on Tuesday.
Ruiz said he cleared the bill with House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, before introducing it. He expects the bill to receive strong opposition, but hopes it will get assigned to the Federal and State Affairs Committee.
Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, chair of that committee, declined to comment on the bill before he had a chance to read it. He also noted that he does not assign bills, the speaker of the House does.
House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, was unaware of the bill’s introduction.
“I know nothing. We’ll see the bill and we’ll look at it,” Merrick said Tuesday. He said he did not know what committee the bill would be assigned to.