Kansas Democrat's bill would ban discrimination based on sexual orientation, gender identity

03/11/2014 1:21 PM

03/13/2014 10:45 AM

A House Democrat introduced a bill on Tuesday that would grant Kansans the same legal protections for sexual orientation and gender identity that they receive for race and religion.

Rep. Louis Ruiz, D-Kansas City, introduced the bill, which has not yet received a number, only a month after the Kansas House passed a bill that many critics said would have legalized discrimination against gay and lesbian couples.

Ruiz sits as ranking minority member on the Federal and State Affairs Committee, which initially passed out HB 2453, and was one of its fiercest critics from the outset.

"I’ve been thinking about this for quite some time ever since we had this religious freedom bill come out," Ruiz said.

"What’s our message when we have these type of discriminatory bills that come out at either the federal or the state level?" Ruiz said. "We’re defeating our own purpose as a country that wants to be inclusive. To me, this is a no-brainer."

His bill would extend the same legal protections that prohibit discrimination based on religion, gender and race to sexual orientation and gender identity. This would make it illegal for a company to refuse to hire or serve someone for being gay or transgender, just as it is illegal to refuse to hire or serve someone based on the color of her skin.

Kansas does have a law that protects sexual orientation and gender identity for state employment, but does not have any further protections. Several states, such as Colorado, for example, have laws that forbid discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

Ruiz is a practicing Catholic, who said that he feels his religious beliefs are already protected, but that gays and lesbians do not enjoy the same protection under current Kansas law.

However, the Kansas Catholic Conference has been one of the main organizations pushing for stronger religious freedom protections that Ruiz and other Democrats say would allow discrimination against gays.

At a Senate hearing on religious freedom last week, Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, questioned whether gay Kansans face the type of discrimination that Ruiz’s bill would prohibit.

"There is no such discrimination. We’ve been having hearings in the Kansas Legislature on religious freedom legislation for four years," Schuttloffel said. "And in four years of hearings, the other side has never brought forward a single example of people being discriminated anywhere in America just because they’re gay."

He argued that extending anti-discrimination protections to LGBT groups would threaten religious liberty. "It’s entirely the point of that kind of legislation to force people to violate their religious beliefs. That’s the whole point," Schuttloffel said.

However, Thomas Witt, spokesman for Equality Kansas, the LGBT rights group that spearheaded opposition against HB 2453 and also called for sexual orientation legal protections at last week’s hearing, said the legislation is definitely necessary.

"If you look at the bills that people are trying to pass that would permanently enshrine open discrimination against gay and lesbian Kansans, can you think of a better reason why we should introduce something (like this bill)?" Witt said at the Capitol on Tuesday.

In an e-mailed statement, Equality Kansas praised Ruiz and House Minority Leader Paul Davis, D-Lawrence, for the introduction of the legislation.

Ruiz said he cleared the bill with Davis as party leader before introducing it. He expects that the bill will receive strong opposition, but hopes the bill will get assigned to the Federal and State Affairs Committee.

Rep. Steve Brunk, R-Wichita, the chair of the Federal and State Affairs Committee, declined to comment on the bill before he had a chance to read it. He also noted that he does not assign bills, the Speaker of the House does.

House Speaker Ray Merrick, R-Stilwell, was unaware of the bill’s introduction.

"I know nothing. We’ll see the bill and we’ll look at it," Merrick said after the House had concluded its floor business for the day. He said he did not know what committee the bill would be assigned to yet.

When the House passed HB 2453 by a vote of 72-49 last month, Ruiz questioned whether many House members, who are predominantly white males, had ever faced real discrimination. As a Latino, Ruiz said he has been discriminated against because of the color of his skin, which makes him sensitive to the prejudice faced by the LGBT community.

"A lot of these guys have always been in their bubble," Ruiz said looking out over the House floor on Tueday. "Here I don’t think people really understand what discrimination does and how hurtful and hateful it is."

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