Politics & Government

Kelly reinstates protections for LGBT state workers in Kansas eliminated by Brownback

Gov. Laura Kelly ordered Kansas state agencies on Tuesday to again prohibit on-the-job discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender state employees.

And the first openly gay state representatives in Kansas history said they will introduce a bill to extend non-discrimination protections to all LGBT people in the state. Kelly said she would sign such a bill.

In her first official act, Kelly signed an executive order reinstating the protections for LGBT workers that were eliminated by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2015.

The order, issued on her full first day as governor, came after she urged elected leaders to lift up all Kansans, whether or not they “love like us,” during her inaugural address Monday.

“As I have said numerous times before, discrimination of any kind has no place in Kansas and it will not be tolerated in this administration,” Kelly said. “We will ensure that state workers feel safe and supported in their working environment.”

The order, first put in place by Democratic Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2007, prohibited harassment, firing or discrimination against state workers based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Brownback removed the protections the same year the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage nationwide. At the time, Brownback said the order had created “a new protected class” through executive action and that any change should be made by the Legislature.

Kelly’s order goes further than the original protections, extending also to people who work for state contractors. It also calls for a program to increase awareness of legal protections for persons with disabilities and requires agencies to develop affirmative action plans.

“It’s an important message to businesses and everybody else in Kansas that this is going to be a place where fairness and equality are valued and promoted,” said Tom Witt, director of Equality Kansas.

State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, condemned Kelly’s order. She told the Associated Press it is “anti-liberty” and said it is “degrading to reduce individuals” to their “sexual inclinations.” “These laws cause divisions in communities and can have serious detrimental and unintended consequences because of their subjective nature,” she added.

The order is limited to executive branch agencies under Kelly’s control. Other offices, like the attorney general or secretary of state, are not included. The legislative and judicial branches are also not included.

Rep. Steve Huebert, R-Valley Center, said he understands why Brownback repealed the order and Kelly reimposed it but that he’s focused on education and other issues.

“To me, there’s more important issues to be working on and I don’t think in the last eight years there’s been any huge problems for people that were discriminated against. At the end of the day, it’s an easy way for Brownback and an easy way for the governor to speak to their base,” Huebert said. “Does it change anything in the long run? Probably not.”

Witt said he knows of seven people who lost their jobs because of discrimination.

Kelly joins governors in Michigan and Wisconsin in signing executive orders in recent weeks with protections for LGBT individuals. Sebelius, a close friend of Kelly’s, in a statement said the executive order is the “right thing to do for Kansas” and will help attract and keep businesses.

“Kansans support treating all people fairly and equally because it’s the right thing to do. We also know that common sense and inclusive policies are critical to maintaining our state’s economic competitiveness,” Sebelius said.

Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, and Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, said they will introduce a statewide non-discrimination bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classes in state law.

Ruiz said having openly LGBT lawmakers will change the discussion surrounding the legislation.

“We want to bring more diversity but we want to be as diverse as the people who brought us here and if we don’t start making those kind of changes now, we’ll never be able to do that,” Ruiz said

Woodard said “it’s a different perspective when they’re actually voting against the rights of two of their colleagues.”

House Speaker Pro Tem Blaine Finch, R-Ottawa, said there is precedent for Kelly ordering protections for state employees. Past governors have issued orders pertaining to government workers, Finch said, noting that Gov. Jeff Colyer extended paid parental leave to state employees through an executive order.

“If anything is going to be done more broadly than that, it has to be the province of the Legislature to make those decisions,” Finch said.

Kansas sits in the middle of a string of Midwest states stretching North Dakota to Texas that have no anti-discrimination prohibitions in law.

According to the Human Rights Campaign, 21 states and the District of Columbia prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Another six states prohibit discrimination against only public employees on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; five states also prohibit discrimination against public employees based only on sexual orientation.

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Jonathan Shorman covers Kansas politics and the Legislature for The Wichita Eagle and The Kansas City Star. He’s been covering politics for six years, first in Missouri and now in Kansas. He holds a journalism degree from the University of Kansas.