A lot of Kansans seconded the national voices condemning a bill to allow private and public employees to deny service to same-sex couples based on religious grounds. But the shelving of House Bill 2453 was only a symbolic victory against such discrimination in the state.
In the recent Public Policy Polling survey in Kansas, 59 percent of those polled (and 44 percent of Republicans) said they opposed the House-passed “act concerning religious freedoms with respect to marriage.”
But if Kansans sincerely have a problem with refusing to serve people based on sexual orientation, they should press lawmakers to add Kansas to the 21 states that have outlawed such discrimination. Now, only the city of Lawrence is on record against it via a 1990s-vintage ordinance (though Topeka has an unenforced version).
Everywhere else in Kansas, gay and lesbian individuals or couples can be fired, evicted or refused service because of their sexual orientation, because state law only prohibits discrimination related to race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry and familial status. Federal law doesn’t bar discrimination based on sexual orientation either, though the Employee Non-Discrimination Act passed the Senate last year and has President Obama’s support.
Meanwhile, the outcry over HB 2453 should inspire some self-scrutiny among the Kansas House members who voted for the religious freedom bill yet claim not to condone discrimination against gays or others.
“They say they don’t want to see discrimination. I say let’s put it in the statute books,” said Thomas Witt, the Wichita-based executive director of Equality Kansas, which advocates for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights.
In any case, same-sex marriage is hardly a settled issue in Kansas, as Gov. Sam Brownback described it last year. Nine years after 70 percent of Kansas voters approved a constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage and bar the state from recognizing civil unions, Kansans’ views continue to evolve.
A year ago, in a SurveyUSA poll sponsored by KWCH, Channel 12, 60 percent of the surveyed Kansans said same-sex couples should be able to share in the legal benefits of marriage. Last month Public Policy Polling found that 66 percent of surveyed Kansans supported at least civil unions for same-sex couples, with opposition to gay marriage having dropped from 51 to 48 percent in a year. Most telling about the future: 61 percent of 18- to 29-year-old Kansans said they thought same-sex marriage should be legal in the state.
All of this should give lawmakers something to think about, if not talk about, as the Senate Judiciary Committee holds a hearing Thursday to examine the state of existing religious protections in Kansas. While Kansans place a strong value on religious freedom, they are clearly uncomfortable with seeing that liberty used to justify discrimination.