Gwyn Mellinger: LGBT rights on two cities’ ballots

09/16/2012 12:00 AM

09/15/2012 1:00 PM

While press and punditry diligently tracked Gov. Sam Brownback’s effort to unseat moderate Republicans in the August primaries, they’ve largely overlooked a development that is energizing conservatives in two Kansas cities for the general election.

In Salina and Hutchinson, battles are being waged over local ordinances that outlaw discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender residents. Ordinances passed by the city commissions have been challenged by citizen petition, forcing the question onto the Nov. 6 ballot.

In Hutchinson, the ordinance passed in June prohibited discrimination against LGBT residents in housing and employment; the Salina ordinance, which passed in May, also covered discrimination in accommodations, a broad category that opponents say would require, for example, that churches rent out meeting rooms to gay-rights organizations.

Grassroots efforts to repeal these ordinances culminated in the certification of petitions earlier this month. Voters in those cities, who may have assumed their vote in Kansas’ lopsided presidential balloting wouldn’t matter, will be drawn to the polls in November.

A similar ordinance was passed in Manhattan in 2011. But before protest petitions could be submitted, a local election changed membership on the city commission, which then repealed the protections.

The Kansas Equality Coalition, a pro-gay rights group with at least 11 chapters across Kansas, was successful in securing passage of a local anti-discrimination law and domestic-partner registry in Lawrence. For the coalition, adding LGBT residents to local nondiscrimination laws is, pure and simple, a matter of civil rights.

The opposition is led by the Kansas Family Policy Council, which views the issue, just as purely and simply, as a question of religious freedom. At the core of the council’s argument is opposition to same-sex marriage and a belief that the law should not force employers, landlords or business owners who oppose gay rights on religious grounds to violate their beliefs.

It’s clear that Kansas voters, 70 percent of whom approved the 2005 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions, have not embraced the LGBT community’s equal-rights claim. But social conservatives who insist that this is a matter of religious liberty, that their civil rights also are at stake, are setting up a constitutional conflict that eventually will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court and, if history is a guide, not in their favor.

President Obama’s announcement this summer that he now supports the right to marry for same-sex couples was a watershed moment for this issue. It followed the historic end of the U.S. military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy last year.

Moreover, as time passes and Kansans are increasingly confronted with friends, co-workers and family members who are gay and out, public sentiment will soften. Pew survey results released this summer show a clear trend. Nationally, 48 percent now favor marriage equality, up from 31 percent in 2004.

In the meantime, Kansans who oppose gay rights and marriage equality will remain an easily mobilized component of the state’s conservative base.

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