A bill that would outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity will receive a hearing during the first week of the 2016 legislative session.
Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, introduced HB 2323 last session hours after Gov. Sam Brownback rescinded a workplace protection against discrimination for gay and lesbian state workers established under former Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.
The bill did not get a hearing, but House Judiciary chair Rep. John Barker, R-Abilene, promised one the next year. He has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 14, the fourth day of the session.
Carmichael’s bill would add sexual orientation and gender identity to a law protecting against religious, racial and gender-based discrimination. That change would make it so that a lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender person could not be fired or evicted based on sexual orientation. It also would protect transgender Kansans.
Barker noted that federal anti-discrimination laws do not include sexual orientation or gender identity as protected classes, but that several states do. Sixteen states, including Colorado and Iowa, protect both sexual orientation and gender identity, and another three protect sexual orientation only.
“I want to see if Kansas needs to do that,” Barker said about his decision to hold the hearing early in the session. “It will of course be up to the committee and the whole body (of the Legislature), but I think it needs to be aired. And I like to listen to people. I like to listen to both sides of an argument.”
Carmichael said he appreciated Barker giving the bill an early hearing.
“Where the bill progresses from there, I cannot offer a guarantee. I think it depends in large part on what happens in the hearing and quite frankly on what happens in society outside the Capitol as well,” Carmichael said, noting that opinions about gay rights have changed rapidly in recent years.
Supreme Court decision last summer
Carmichael said that although the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision last summer assured that LGBT Americans could marry, it did not protect them “from being fired for who they are and who they love.”
“That’s where the Legislature has to come in and make sure we’re not a place where discrimination is countenanced by the law,” he said.
Tom Witt, executive director of LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, praised lawmakers for taking up the issue. “I think the people of Kansas need to understand that anti-LGBT discrimination does exist in this state and there are steps we can take to end it,” he said.
Witt, who has led opposition against legislation that would have allowed government employees to refuse to serve same-sex couples on religious grounds, said that “having a hearing on a bill that we would support is an opportunity we haven’t had in … five years,” referring to the length of time Brownback has been in office.
Strong opposition to the bill expected
The anti-discrimination bill will likely face strong opposition from those who see it as a threat to religious liberty.
The Kansas Family Policy Council, which recently announced the hiring of outgoing Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, as its executive director, warned in a December fundraising letter that LGBT rights activists were lobbying for “policies that undermine our first freedom – religious liberty.”
Many religious conservatives have called for legislation to strengthen legal protections for religious Kansans who oppose same-sex marriage. Terry Fox, pastor of Summit Church in Wichita, said he thinks that Kansas needs a law to ensure people can exercise their personal religious convictions.
“What do you do with a member of Summit Church, who owns a business, who has conviction that he doesn’t want his product going to promote something that’s a sin to him?” Fox said. “That’s probably the biggest issue and I think in writing the religious freedom law that’s been the challenge a little bit, how do you distinguish between the church member and the church?”
The state’s Catholic bishops published a letter in July calling on Kansas policymakers to develop stronger religious protections in the wake of the Supreme Court decision.
“Generations of Americans have taken freedom of conscience for granted. We, sadly, do not have that luxury anymore,” the letter stated.
‘You should always be able to have a discussion’
Asked if he expected a backlash from social conservatives in his party for holding the hearing on the anti-discrimination proposal, Barker replied, “Maybe. I don’t know.”
“I like to think of the Republican Party as an inclusive party,” Barker continued. “… You should always be able to have a discussion. I mean, that’s the way our democracy’s built.”
Barker also chairs the Legislative Post-Audit Committee, which in January will weigh a proposal to audit the Kansas Department for Children and Families over a number of issues, including that the agency has discriminated against same-sex couples in adoption and foster care cases.
Barker said that through both committees he wants to find out if claims of anti-gay discrimination by DCF and in Kansas more broadly are true.
Tesa Rigel Hines, a Wichita lesbian woman who has accused DCF of discrimination, said that protections against discrimination would make the workplace a safer and more productive place for LGBT people and allow them to help educate heterosexual co-workers.
“When we are allowed to be out in our workplace and still do quality work, still have pictures of our family up just like everybody else … it does a double duty of kind of educating the broader public that LGBT individuals are your neighbors,” said Rigel Hines, who plans to write her dissertation on employment discrimination as a doctoral candidate at St. Louis University.
When Brownback rescinded the workplace protection for LGBT state workers in February, he criticized Sebelius for establishing it through an executive order, contending that it was a policy decision better left to the Legislature – a fact that Carmichael noted.
“Should the bill be successful. … I would expect that he (Brownback) will be good to his word and follow the Legislature’s will,” Carmichael said.
Asked about the bill, the governor’s office responded: “Legislators are always welcome to introduce any bills they desire.”