Mayor wants Johnson County’s largest city to finally vote on adding LGBTQ protections

After months of convincing from gay rights activists, Johnson County’s largest city will finally decide whether it should add legal protections for the LGBTQ community.

Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach called a special City Council meeting to be held Monday night, for officials to discuss a proposed nondiscrimination ordinance. According to a statement from the city, the mayor is asking council members to consider and “recommend formal approval” of the ordinance.

The move follows an early September committee meeting, where more than 50 people voiced their opinions on the matter, with the majority speaking in favor of LGBTQ protections.

Overland Park is one of the last Johnson County cities to consider a nondiscrimination ordinance, aimed at protecting people from being denied housing, employment or services from businesses because of sexual orientation or gender identity.

Lenexa unanimously approved protections earlier this week, after Shawnee and Leawood passed their own this summer. If Overland Park follows suit, Olathe would be the only city of Johnson County’s “big five” without a nondiscrimination ordinance.

Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach File photo The Kansas City Star

Encouraging local cities to add LGBTQ protections —an effort largely spearheaded by the activist group Equality Kansas — has been a long and contentious fight. Advocates have shown up to dozens of city meetings, sharing stories of being denied jobs or housing, and pleading for cities to embrace equality for all.

Opponents have shown up in smaller numbers, but have cited several concerns of their own. They often detail fears about the statutes limiting religious freedom and adding an unnecessary burden on taxpayers as cities would be responsible for handling discrimination complaints and lawsuits.

The meetings have drawn people of all ages and backgrounds, as well as several state representatives, as there are no protections in place at the federal or state level.

And as Olathe lags behind the rest, dozens of residents continue to show up at every City Council meeting to beg the city to bring the issue to a vote. Around 400 people gathered in front of Frontier Trail Middle School in Olathe last week, waving rainbow flags and holding signs, including some that read, “love always wins” and “you are not alone.”

“Our community wanted to make sure that the young people in our area knew they were loved. … And I think it speaks to why it’s important,” Shelly McNaughton-Lawrence, pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Olathe, said at the demonstration. “Discrimination happens if we don’t have rules and laws in place. Religious freedom does not mean you have to put your freedom upon me, or mine upon you. It’s a bigger issue than that. God loves all. There’s no difference who you are.”

The Olathe, Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission and De Soto school districts all have passed LGBTQ protections for students and staff.

Roeland Park was the first Johnson County city to approve an ordinance in 2014, and since then, nine other cities have followed. Officials in Westwood and Fairway are now considering passing their own statutes.

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.