Roeland Park OKs workshop to work on anti-bias ordinance

06/03/2014 6:19 PM

06/03/2014 6:19 PM

With a vote on the city’s plan to ban discrimination fast approaching, the Roeland Park City Council will hold a workshop to discuss several outstanding issues.

On Monday, the council’s Committee of the Whole approved a workshop for next Tuesday to discuss outstanding issues with a proposal to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the city’s protected classes. The council plans to address the law’s religious exemptions, the financial impact and questions from residents. The workshop is open to the public and will begin at 7 p.m. at the City Hall, but Jennifer Gunby, who along with Megan England proposed the ordinance, said no public comment will be taken so the council has plenty of time to talk through issues.

“The train is moving fast,” she said.

The council has pushed back the final vote three times and plans to make a decision at the June 16 council meeting.

Chief among those issues is the ordinance’s legal wording, which critics said is too vague.

Maureen Reardon, a Roeland Park resident, told the council she took the ordinance to a lawyer who “blew it away in five minutes.” Reardon would not name the attorney she visited but said he has experience with federal appeals courts.

Her concern was that churches and other religious groups that raise money through public events would fall under commercial ventures and no longer be exempt from the law. For instance, St. Agnes Catholic Parish holds an annual for-profit fish fry that is open to the public and Girl Scouts often sell cookies at churches.

“I think they wanted to exempt churches, but this language is too vague,” Reardon said after the meeting.

Councilman Michael Rhoades asked if two lawyers should be present at the workshop in addition to the city’s attorney. This would best represent both sides of the debate, he said. The council has already heard from Dale Schowengerdt, a lawyer with the Alliance Defending Freedom, who spoke against the law, and it was drafted with the help of Equality Kansas, a pro-LGBT rights group. With the workshop only a week away the council decided to would be unlikely they could find two additional lawyers on short notice.

Another concern has been the financial impact of the law. At the workshop, Councilwoman Sheri McNeil will present financial information that Becky Fast had compiled.

Fast said because finances will not be her only motive for voting, she’d like to have someone else do the presentation.

Council members were also asked to comprise lists of concerns they heard from their constituents. Council Woman Mel Croston said residents emailed almost 60 questions and comments to her that she would like addressed at the workshop.

Public commenters have climbed above a dozen and have largely been split at previous meetings, but Monday night saw fewer than 10 speakers, who were mostly in favor.

Matt Thomas, a Roeland Park resident, used the Topeka-based Westboro Baptist Church and the shooting at the Jewish Community Center as examples of hate near the city. He said the mannequin wearing a mask resembling President Barack Obama that was found hanging from a bridge over Interstate 70 near Grain Valley, is the latest example.

“We need anti-discrimination ordinances to stop the hate,” he said.

Debi Jackson, a resident of Kansas City, which has a similar discrimination ban, said her 6-year-old transgender daughter should feel welcome wherever she goes. Jackson had previously described herself as a conservative Baptist, but said religion should play no part in this argument.

“Unless God can make it to the council meeting, I don’t think (decisions) should be made on religions’ ideals,” she said.

Fiona Nowling, who has been married to a transgender woman for over a decade, said the law would make Roeland Park more inviting to outsiders. The Overland Park resident said a large LGBT community in the Kansas City metro would come to Roeland Park for shopping and dining if the law passed.

“Roeland Park should carry the flag for the rest of Johnson County,” she said.

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