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Before divided crowd, PV council advances LGBTQ anti-discrimination policy

The City of Prairie Village is advancing a proposed LGBTQ anti-discrimination ordinance after hearing from more than two dozen residents and other speakers Monday night, most of them in favor of the measure.

The City Council voted 9-3 to schedule a Nov. 19 vote on the ordinance, which would extend legal protections to members of the LGBTQ community when it comes to housing, employment and receiving public services from businesses.

Councilman Tucker Poling, who co-sponsored the measure with Councilman Chad Herring, said that the 30 days would give the city’s legal and administrative staff time to review the proposal’s language for problems and necessary revisions, which he said could require the council to delay a final vote.

But he said the council needed to move ahead with addressing what he considered a gap in Kansas and federal laws that ban many types of discrimination but do not protect people based on sexual orientation or gender identity.

“What this ordinance stands for is very simple, that no one should be discriminated against in our community because of who they are or who they love,” Poling said.

The ordinance, based on similar measures adopted in Roeland Park and Manhattan, would apply to the city and any business with four or more employees, landlords leasing four or more units or any business providing services to the general public.

People who believed they had been discriminated against based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry, sexual orientation, gender identity or military status could file a complaint with the city, which would be charged with investigating the claim and seeking a resolution, including fining a violator $500 per offense.

The ordinance would not apply to non-profit private clubs or religious institutions.

Council members Serena Schermoly, Andrew Wang and Ted Odell voted against moving the ordinance forward.

Wang and Odell, as well as some council members who ultimately voted to move the ordinance, took issue with how the measure has advanced behind the scenes. They noted that the city has already spent around 60 hours of staff time and more than $9,400 in legal fees on the ordinance despite the issue never coming before the full board for a discussion.

“That’s the only issue I have with this ordinance is how it’s been carried forward, and it’s completely without my knowledge and completely without my consent,” Wang said.

“We’re changing that tonight,” Mayor Laura Wassmer responded.

The measure was originally scheduled to come before the council on Sept. 17, but that meeting was canceled because of a lack of a quorum. Several of the council members who didn’t attend that meeting were criticized online, in the media and by their fellow council members ,and some of those wounds were still raw Monday night.

“The amount of hatred and stuff that passed through between social media, between emails, between all the stuff that took place over the last month is really appalling,” said Odell, who said he missed the meeting because he was taking a continuing education class.

Schermoly, who is running for mayor, questioned whether 30 days was enough notice for the business community to provide its input. She also said she had concerns about enforcing the ordinance and that forcing business owners to provide services that violated their religious beliefs could lead to litigation and other costs.

“I support non-discrimination, and I think most of us here want to make sure that happens,” Schermoly said. “But we need to be careful.”

Herring said Roeland Park and other cities that have passed similar legislation have not seen significant legal challenges or disruptions among their business communities. He said, as a pastor, the ordinance would not require him to participate in a marriage ceremony he didn’t agree with but also would not allow religion to be used for public discrimination.

“When you’re in the public sphere, every citizen should have equal access and equal participation,” he said.

Before the vote, a long list of residents, many wearing rainbow-colored buttons that read “Equality is a Village Value,” gave their input on the ordinance.

Zach Martin, a Shawnee Mission East High School senior, told the council that the ordinance would benefit the city by both protecting its residents and visitors, and it would boost Prairie Village’s reputation as a welcoming place.

“I don’t view this as political, I view this simply as something of human rights,” Martin said. “It’s been shown through history that if you don’t stand for the rights of your neighbor, you stand against them.”

Kaitlin Vaughn said she and her wife are able to live as a married couple in Prairie Village because the U.S. Supreme Court has upheld marriage equality. But she noted that she currently could be fired by a Prairie Village employer for having a picture of her wife on her desk. She added that inclusive legislation can lead to lower rates of violence and suicide among LGBTQ youth.

“With a few strokes of a pen you have the chance to convey to LGBT residents, neighbors and friends that they belong here in Prairie Village and here on this Earth,” Vaughn said.

Not all the speakers supported the measure, however.

Eric Teetsel, executive director of the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas, said bigotry against the LGBTQ community has declined in recent years and the market should determine if a business should be punished for its actions, not the government.

“Some say the ordinance, even if unnecessary, still sends an important symbolic message about what Prairie Village stands for, and indeed it will,” Teetsel said. “It will send a message loud and clear that people who hold certain religious beliefs are not welcome and should be punished.”

State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook of Shawnee said the current state laws protecting against discrimination are based on easily understandable criteria and questioned how employers or business owners could avoid violating the proposed ordinance accidentally.

“Sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be determined simply by looking at a person,” Pilcher-Cook said. “Therefore, these laws can have serious detrimental and unintended consequences because of their subjective nature.”

David Twiddy: