TOPEKA – A bill that would ban workplace and housing discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity faced strong opposition at a legislative hearing Thursday.
HB 2323 would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s anti-discrimination statute, which protects against religious, racial and gender-based discrimination. The bill would make it illegal to fire or evict someone for being gay or transgender and ensure equal access to public accommodation.
Supporters of the bill said it is needed because LGBT Kansans regularly face discrimination.
Opponents said the bill would make Kansans who oppose same-sex marriage on religious grounds vulnerable to lawsuits. They also raised concerns about transgender women being allowed to enter women’s bathrooms.
“These laws restrict everyone’s freedom,” said Kellie Fiedorek, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national group focused on religious freedom issues. She recounted how a florist in Washington is being sued under that state’s anti-discrimination law for refusing to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding.
“And if she loses her case, she will not only lose her business, but she will lose her entire life savings, her home. She will lose everything because of a law like this,” Fiedorek said.
She said that a convicted sex offender had been approved to use women’s bathrooms in Dallas after transitioning under the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance. She said the bill would “allow men – or men who think they may be women – into women’s bathrooms.”
Sandra Meade, a transgender woman and chair of LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, warned lawmakers that opponents would use fear of predators in bathrooms to kill the bill and asked them to “reject that demagoguery on its face.”
“Coming out is risky,” said Meade, a veteran of the Navy. “And it’s risky in a conservative environment because of the amount of demagoguery that’s going on. Instead of being a veteran, instead of being a proud parent, instead of the contributions that I’ve given to my country, all of that is overshadowed by being transgender and people try to replace all of those labels with one that says ‘predator.’ I’m not a predator. I’m a proud American and a proud Kansan.”
Meade said requiring transgender women to use men’s bathrooms puts them at risk.
Fears over religious freedom
Rep. John Whitmer, R-Wichita, said he was worried that the bill would “take rights from one group of people and bestow them to another.”
He asked Fiedorek if it would be possible to sue a minister for refusing to perform a same-sex wedding. She said the bill could be used to sue a church under the section prohibiting discrimination of public accommodation.
The bill specifically states that public accommodation shall not refer to religious organizations, Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, the bill’s sponsor, said after the hearing.
Several pastors came to Topeka to support the bill in the hearing before the House Jucidiary Committee.
Kent Little, pastor of College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, called this a human rights issue. He said that LGBT Kansans shouldn’t live under the threat of losing a job “simply because they are living out their authentic being, who they were created to be by their creator.”
‘Everybody’s a man or a woman’
Rep. Jan Pauls, R-Hutchinson, an attorney, said passing the bill would destroy the state’s civil rights act. She called gender identity a “touchy-feely phrase without a clear definition” and said the bill would lead to needless litigation because all sexual orientations would be protected under it.
“Then you have a situation where an employer could refuse to hire someone, who is a minority such as a Latino, and they could say, well, I didn’t hire that person because I went ahead and hired a heterosexual,” Pauls said.
Pauls said that the state’s anti-discrimination law was not meant “to set up a situation where everyone in the state is in a protected class and so no protection occurs.”
Rep. John Rubin, R-Shawnee, a former judge, said the bill wouldn’t require an employer to hire somebody based on sexual orientation, but that it would allow a person to take an employer to court if he or she could show that sexual orientation played a role in the decision.
When Pauls said that it’s already illegal to fire or refuse to hire someone for being a man or a woman, Rubin replied, “That actually refutes your earlier argument, because everybody’s already protected because everybody’s a man or a woman.”