Several hundred Kansans packed into the Capitol on Wednesday, demanding racial, religious and gender equality and more funding for education, among other things.
They also advocated for voting rights, abortion rights, restoring a ban on guns on college campuses and repealing tax breaks that they said primarily benefit the wealthy.
The demonstrators gathered under the banner of the “Kansas People’s Agenda,” a 15-point manifesto covering topics that will come up during the legislative session that started this week.
The crowd packed the second-floor Rotunda, where Gov. Sam Brownback’s offices are situated. Demonstrators also crowded balconies looking down from the third and fourth floors. They unveiled their agenda through speeches, songs, poetry, prayer, cheers and chants.
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Some of the loudest cheers of the day came for Thomas Witt of Wichita, executive director of Equality Kansas and chairman of the Kansas Democratic Party Progressive Caucus.
“We have been leading the effort to drag our Democratic Party kicking and screaming to the progressive left,” Witt said. “And it’s working.”
He then led the crowd in shouts of “Thank you, Obama!” saluting the outgoing president.
Several speakers were clergy or elders representing Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Native American faiths, pushing back against what they see as a misuse of religion to move political policy at the Statehouse.
“For too long, religiosity has been used as an excuse for cruel public policy. No more. No more,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, director of Kansas Interfaith Action. “We are here to take back the moral voice. The real religious values — inclusivity and compassion, the dignity of every human being, peace and social justice — these are our moral values.”
The Rev. Tobias Schlingensiepen, pastor of First Congregational Church in Topeka, criticized business-friendly tax policies enacted by Brownback and the Legislature in recent years.
“An economy for the few at the expense of the many is not a moral economy,” he said. “For the past six years we saw efforts to distract us from this moral deficit by a pseudo-religious zeal that demonized fellow citizens, whether it was women and their health care, or the rights of same-gender couples to marry, or the right of Muslims citizens to live without fear of suspicion among us.”
Several speakers urged lawmakers to increase funding for schools when they rewrite the school-finance formula this year, including Heather Ousley of Game On for Kansas Schools, a Merriam mother who has walked 60 miles from her home to Topeka to advocate for schools.
“Whatever else is neglected, let us not neglect the education of our children,” Ousley said.
Kerry Wynn, an associate professor of history at Washburn University, appeared at the rally with two Washburn students to protest a state law that will allow students and others to carry concealed firearms at all state-supported universities starting in July. As Wynn described that law, members of the crowd shouted “No! No!”
“Guns on campus will not make my students safer,” Wynn said. “It will expose them instead to increased danger and put up barriers to their education. With our legislators, we need to go forward and stop campus carry.”