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UPDATE: On Oct. 12, the Wichita City Council voted 6-1 to pass the nondiscrimination ordinance. The council approved amendments to the measure proposed by Wichita’s Diversity, Inclusion and Civil Rights Advisory Board and rejected an amendment from City Council member Jared Cerullo to expand religious exemptions in the ordinance. This Twitter thread breaks down the council votes on the amendments and ordinance.
Three years ago, Tom Witt — executive director of Equality Kansas, a statewide LGBTQ advocacy group — spoke out against legislation that would make it harder for LGBTQ couples to adopt. His comments were broadcast on news channels across the state.
The next week, he showed up for a dentist appointment in Wichita.
But his dentist wouldn’t come out to see him, Witt said. Witt asked when he needed to reschedule — but he was told that wasn’t an option.
“That’s the kind of daily crap LGBT people get here,” Witt said.
Witt said that type of anti-LGBTQ discrimination would not be permitted in the city if the Wichita City Council passes a nondiscrimination ordinance proposed in June. But the ordinance stalled for months after hours of public comment about concerns of the impact on religious groups and business owners. The council will vote on the ordinance Oct. 12, but Mayor Brandon Whipple said Sept. 26 that he didn’t yet have the votes to pass it.
The ordinance would prohibit discrimination against 12 protected classes, including sexual orientation and gender identity, in employment, housing and public accommodations. The protections for LGBTQ people have drawn the largest backlash, with organizations concerned that the ordinance would infringe on their religious freedom.
“Across the country we’ve seen these laws used as a sword to go after business owners, teachers, public leaders, and even churches and pastors,” wrote Jeff Bennett, executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas. Bennett spoke against the ordinance several times at City Council meetings.
How would the proposed nondiscrimination ordinance work?
Read an explainer by The Wichita Beacon here.
But a review by The Wichita Beacon of Kansas municipalities that include sexual orientation and gender identity in their nondiscrimination ordinances found that only one has had any complaints filed. Fifteen of the 19 cities with ordinances responded. One city, Topeka, has no process for a person to file a complaint.
“That alone would show that claims of harassment of businesses or religious leaders or churches are unfounded,” said David Brown, who teaches an LGBTQ legal seminar at the University of Kansas School of Law. “It just doesn’t happen.”
Instead, officials in Kansas municipalities with LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances say they are good for business, allow religious freedom and help bring residents together.
Businesses, chambers of commerce support LGBTQ protections
In 2016, rankings like these began rolling in for Roeland Park. Two years earlier, the city had added sexual orientation and gender identity to its nondiscrimination ordinance, after a proposal by former Roeland Park City Council member Megan England.
England sees the rankings and the nondiscrimination ordinance as linked.
“Not only is (a nondiscrimination ordinance) good social policy, but it’s good fiscal policy,” England said.
The majority of Roeland Park businesses supported the ordinance, England said. Documents from the time show at least 28 Roeland Park businesses and nine area businesses advocated for the ordinance. At least two area chamber of commerce organizations pushed for it, too.
At the time, Roeland Park and Lawrence were the only cities in Kansas to include sexual orientation and gender identity in their ordinances. Now, 14 of the 20 municipalities in Johnson County have similar language.
“Discrimination at any level is detrimental to businesses, large and small, by negatively impacting their ability to attract and retain top talent,” Deb Settle, CEO and president of the NEJC Chamber, said in an email to The Beacon.
The Wichita Regional Chamber of Commerce has not explicitly taken a position on Wichita’s proposed nondiscrimination ordinance. Instead, Interim President and CEO Scott Schwindaman wrote that the chamber is “supportive of policies that prohibit discrimination and promote equality for all persons.”
No discrimination complaints filed against religious organizations
When the nondiscrimination ordinance was introduced, many Wichitans implored the City Council to consider whether it would infringe on their religious freedom and impact churches.
“We are concerned about having to lawyer up,” Chuck Weber, director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said in a July 6 council meeting.
But in the 15 municipalities surveyed by The Beacon, only two complaints of discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity have been filed — and neither was against a religious organization.
Both were filed in Lawrence, which has prohibited discrimination based on sexual orientation since 1995 and gender identity since 2011.
The Lawrence nondiscrimination ordinance, like the Wichita one and most others in Kansas cities, includes religious exemptions. The Wichita ordinance does not consider religious organizations a place of public accommodation, does not apply to a religious organization’s employment of individuals who do religious work, and permits religious organizations to limit their housing to people who promote their religious principles.
“In general, non-discrimination ordinances like the one proposed in Wichita do not threaten religious liberties,” wrote Sharon Brett, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.
In fact, Kansas’ constitution has a “gold standard” of religious freedom protection, according to the ACLU of Kansas. Plus, the 2013 Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act ensures that the “government shall not substantially burden a person’s civil right to exercise religion.”
What nondiscrimination ordinances mean for LGBTQ Kansans
At Pittsburg State University, LGBTQ students can access support and resources on campus, said Amber Hames, Q Space’s communications director. Q Space is a nonprofit with the goal of creating a safe environment for LGBTQ people in southeast Kansas.
But once they leave campus, ”we’re like, this is an entirely different atmosphere,” Hames said.
That’s why Q Space pushed for Pittsburg to adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance in January. Though the ordinance does not have civil penalties for offenders, Hames said its passage made a symbolic difference in showing that the city values LGBTQ people.
“I’ve definitely had people mention that by having an NDO, we are opening ourselves up to having a wider variety of people that feel safe in this community,” Hames said.
It’s difficult to determine if nondiscrimination ordinances change the amount of discrimination Kansans face. The Kansas Human Rights Commission did not begin accepting LGBTQ-based discrimination complaints until August 2020.
Witt said that anecdotally, communities in Kansas with the ordinances see less discrimination.
“I get one or two calls a month, people who say they believe they’ve been discriminated against,” Witt said. “And I haven’t gotten any calls out of Johnson County in two years. And that wasn’t the case before.”
But Rachel Levitt, co-chair of the Flint Hills Human Rights Project in Manhattan, said transgender group members have faced discrimination in the workplace and lost their jobs since the Kansas city passed a nondiscrimination ordinance in 2016. Yet no discrimination complaints based on gender identity have been filed in Manhattan, according to City Attorney Katie Jackson.
“Folks who have been discriminated against — particularly when we’re talking about members of the LGBTQ+ community — are reluctant to go down the legal challenge path,” Brown said. “It exposes them to all sorts of unwanted attention, which is what many of them are trying to avoid.”
Brown also added that he’s seen landlords and businesses change policies to comply with the ordinances only to discriminate by altering credit or income requirements.
But many Kansans in cities with LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances spoke to how their passage reverberated beyond the ordinance’s language. In Pittsburg, its passage precipitated the rebirth of the city’s Human Relations Commission, Hames said. In Roeland Park, Mayor Mike Kelly said attendance at City Council meetings increased and the number of community volunteers went up.
“There was this effect that LGBTQ folks saw other people who were out here fighting for them and building this community around this conversation,” said Mariya Vaughan, another co-chair of the Flint Hills Human Rights Project. “That had a positive impact.”