Olathe is among the worst cities in Kansas to be LGBT, a recent report found. And its city officials and leaders seem to be unfamiliar with their own authority to protect the often-marginalized groups.
The Human Rights Campaign recently issued its “Municipality Equality Index,” which ranks cities in several categories for its treatment of and protections for LGBT people. Olathe scored seven points out of 100 — the worst of the nine Kansas municipalities ranked and one of the worst in the nation.
In the first, critical category — municipally enacted nondiscrimination laws — Olathe received zero out of 30 possible points. Cities earn points in the category if they have enacted laws prohibiting employment, housing or public accommodation discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.
Tim Danneberg, communications director for the City of Olathe, said by email after researching questions posed by The Star on the topic, that “the issues asked in section 1 are largely areas where Kansas cities have no authority.”
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Later, he clarified that he meant cities do not have authority to dictate how private employers write their policy manuals.
He added that cities can pass such ordinances. However, Olathe has no current ordinances protecting LGBT people.
But other cities in Kansas do.
“We’ve done it,” said Elizabeth Hafoka, the Lawrence supervising city prosecutor and human relations investigator.
Lawrence received the highest score among Kansas cities with 74 points — 30 of which were rewarded for the city’s nondiscrimination laws.
Kansas remains one of several states that have not passed a statewide law explicitly protecting LGBT people from discrimination. That fact elevated Lawrence’s laws in the eyes of the Human Rights Campaign, which highlighted cities in other states with similar ordinances where statewide protections are absent.
“Anti-equality politicians have been emboldened by a political climate where hate and discrimination have entered the mainstream,” wrote Chad Griffin, the president of the Human Rights Campaign Foundation. “But at a time when it would be easy to grow weary and complacent, cities and towns are leading the way forward.”
Olathe is not among them, according to the report. The city was joined by another Johnson County city, Overland Park, which scored just 19 out of 100 points. Like Olathe, Overland Park received zero points for its lack of nondiscrimination laws protecting LGBT people.
Danneberg said Olathe should have received a higher score because it does report hate crimes to the FBI and it protects against discrimination for municipal employees (components of the report).
When told about municipalities’ authority to enact laws protecting LGBT people, Danneberg said, “I’ll defer to legal on that one.”
The Lawrence ordinance allows LGBT people to report complaints to its Human Relations Division, which then investigates a complaint and can prosecute if probable cause is found.
A civil penalty of up to $10,000 can be leveled for a first-time offense, but Hafoka said that in her time, all complaints have been settled with damages to a victim or another conciliation measure such as reinstating a victim’s lost job.
About five complaints have been issued each year in Lawrence since 2011.
“Lawrence is a community that wants to make sure that everyone is protected equally,” said Casey Toomay, the assistant city manager.
Olathe has lagged behind in that endeavor, the Human Rights Campaign report found.
Signs of discrimination against the LGBT community have surfaced in the city. Olathe Northwest High School students in the Gender-Sexuality Alliance club were ridiculed in September during the school’s homecoming parade. Other students chanted, “Make ONW straight again.”
A few days later, supporters of the LGBT community stood outside the school with rainbow flags and signs in response to the hateful words and actions.
Danneberg pointed out that the city does not operate the schools and that the school district has anti-bullying policies.
Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland acknowledged that incident in a recent phone conversation with The Star. He said he conferred with a city attorney after it happened, who told him “people are protected.”
He added that he supports the concept of equal rights, but when asked whether he supported a nondiscrimination ordinance similar to those in other cities, he said, “I’m not going to speak on an ordinance I haven’t seen.”
Danneberg stressed that Olathe’s city policy reflects federal guidelines set forth by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but he acknowledged there is ambiguity at the federal level on whether sexual orientation and gender identity are protected classes. Last month, the Department of Justice rescinded Obama-era protections against discrimination based on gender identity.
“This is pretty murky,” Danneberg said by text. “The DOJ and (EEOC) are at odds over protected classes.”
That leaves those in Olathe, Overland Park and other Kansas cities in limbo if they’re evicted from their home, fired or otherwise mistreated at their job for being LGBT.
Tom Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, said a 1970s Kansas Supreme Court decision gave authority to cities to pass nondiscrimination laws, and since then Manhattan, Roeland Park, Topeka and Lawrence have passed their own nondiscrimination laws with varying levels of protections for LGBT people.
“The cancer of injustice toward members of minority groups is peculiarly virulent on the local scene; discrimination is essentially a people problem, and must eventually be dealt with and solved by people in the localities where they live,” the Kansas Supreme Court wrote in its ruling of the case Hutchinson Human Relations Commission v. Midland Credit Management, Inc.
At the state level, Witt said Equality Kansas has long advocated for a statewide protection based on gender identity and sexual orientation — to no avail.
But progress is being made.
“I will say that interest in protecting Kansans from discrimination has been growing,” Witt said. “Are we to that point yet where Kansas will pass this type of legislation? I think it may take an election cycle or two. We need a different governor (The current governor is Sam Brownback), and Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer is likely to be the governor any time now — they are both hostile to discrimination protections for LGBT Kansans.”
Tracy Hadel, a licensed specialist clinical social worker, works largely with Johnson County LGBT students. She said the county lacks support groups that exist in Kansas City. The groups, she added, probably would serve to build connections among youths and could lower the LGBT suicide rate in the area.
In Missouri, Kansas City, St. Louis and Columbia all received perfect scores on the index, with KC receiving bonus points for electing openly LGBT people to municipal leadership roles. Jefferson City, however, scored a zero.
Overland Park and Olathe each received zero points in multiple municipal services categories, including LGBT youth services, LGBT homeless services, transgender services and LGBT elder services.
Hadel said bias exists in every city, but that Johnson County schools have improved. Still, there is work to be done.
And Copeland, the Olathe mayor, said, “I don’t think it’s fair to fire people because of gender identity.”