Roeland Park’s proposed anti-bias ban draws mixed reviews

04/15/2014 5:40 PM

04/15/2014 5:40 PM

Roeland Park residents spoke out Monday about the city’s proposed plan to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

As many as 100 residents gathered in the gym of Roesland Elementary School to discuss adding protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in employment, housing and public service. Roeland Park would be the second city in Kansas, after Lawrence, to adopt such a policy. State and federal laws currently have no protection for sexual orientation and gender identity.

Residents were allowed to ask questions and then comment to a panel that included Sandra Meade from Equality Kansas; Robert Noland from the Kansas Family Policy Council; Carl Edwards from the Lawrence Human Relations Commission; Mayor Joel Marquardt and Acting City Attorney Todd LaSalla. The line for comment often stretched to above a dozen and at the meeting’s end more than 10 people were still in line.

Councilwomen Megan England and Jennifer Gundy on March 3 introduced the ordinance, which was drafted with the help of Equality Kansas. At a public hearing March 17, the crowd was in overwhelming support. At Monday night’s forum, however, the crowd’s views were mixed.

Most speakers had concerns about how the law would be implemented. The initial drafts of the ordinance would use the district court for enforcement, but another option would be to use the local municipal court. The city also could set up a staff member to serve as a mediator between parties, or, like Lawrence, the city could set up a Human Rights Commission to review complaints.

Resident Linda Mau said there was not proof that discrimination was occurring enough to justify the law.

“There are many other much more pressing issues,” she said.

Meade said it’s difficult to know how many members of the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community have been discriminated against in Roeland Park or any Kansas city because there is currently no way to report that sort of discrimination. If someone was to complain to a state agency, she said they would most likely be turned away.

“It’s a Catch-22,” Meade said. “I can’t tell you if there are incidents because the state doesn’t let us report them.”

Some speakers, including Robert Noland, the panelist from Kansas Family Policy Council, were concerned the law would trample on religious freedom and place churches and other religious groups a tough position. His organization has worked against similar ordinances that were proposed — but not adopted — in Manhattan, Salina and Hutchinson. The law currently excludes churches, libraries and schools. But if a church were to rent out space to the general public, it could not discriminate.

“We’re not in favor of discrimination of any kind,” Noland said after the meeting. “We just want people to know there could be consequences. Religion will be trumped by the laws.”

But many residents spoke in favor of the ordinance. Elizabeth Anderson said she and other LGBT residents do not want special treatment, just fair treatment.

“We’re your neighbors,” she said after the forum, adding that she knew many LGBT residents who would not speak up out of fear.

Nancy Beckmann, who raised two sons in Roeland Park, one of whom is gay, also spoke in favor.

“Our son was bullied and assaulted,” she said. “To assume it’s not happening is wrong.”

Former city leaders were at odds over the proposal. Adrienne Foster, mayor from 2009 to 2013, spoke twice against the measure. During her first trip to the podium she questioned whether such a law was needed.

“I have not found one instance of discrimination in the workplace,” she said.

Steve Petrehn, who was the mayor before Foster, favored the ordinance, citing the city’s progressive moves to be one of the first cities to ban smoking and weapons on public property. Sunday’s shootings at the Jewish Community Center and Village Shalom by a suspected racist are why these conversations are important, he said.

“That kind of hatred is why we should talk about this,” said.

The ordinance will probably move to the committee of the whole for further consideration. The council is not expected to vote on it until May 19 at the earliest.

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