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As I See It: Roeland Park’s anti-bias effort enriches all of us

Holly Weatherford
Holly Weatherford

In the wake of Kansas legislation earlier this year — HB 2453 — that proposed authorizing discrimination based on sexual orientation, an ordinance was introduced to the Roeland Park City Council to include sexual orientation and gender identity to classes currently afforded protection from discrimination under federal and state law.

Current state law bars discrimination on the basis of race, religion, sex, disability, national origin or ancestry in employment, housing and public accommodation. It is unlikely at the state level that current law will be expanded to include sexual orientation or gender identity in the near future. At the federal level it doesn’t appear that Congress will be taking on the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but President Barack Obama may issue a potential executive order barring LGBT workplace discrimination limited to federal contractors.

This is not about special treatment for LGBT Kansans. This is about simply leveling the playing field. Laws that protect against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities. LGBT people are productive members of society, who contribute to the economy just like everyone else, and it’s only fair they be able to live and work just like everyone else.

These proactive efforts were recently challenged at a Roeland Park City Council meeting. With little notice given to the full council and the public, two council members invited attorney Dale Schowengerdt from Alliance Defending Freedom, a self-described “servant ministry building an alliance to keep the door open for the spread of the Gospel by transforming the legal system and advocating for religious liberty, the sanctity of life, and marriage and family,” to speak to the council about the proposed ordinance.

Another vocal opponent to this proposed ordinance is the Kansas Family Policy Council. Both group are leaders in the push for anti-LGBT discrimination legislation across the country. County residents and their elected officials cannot follow those who earlier this year led us to disaster by advocating for a group of people to be singled out for discrimination.

I would be remiss in my duty if I did not address protections for religious freedom. We have the absolute right to believe whatever we want about God, faith and religion. We have the right to act on our religious beliefs, unless those actions harm others. The proposed Roeland Park ordinance includes a religious exemption. Furthermore, the Kansas Constitution and Kansas law establishes a gold standard for religious freedom protections. In addition to the very bold and powerful religious freedom provision in our state Bill of Rights, which provides more meaning to religious freedom than the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Kansas law provides heightened protections for religious liberty under the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.

At this point, you might be wondering why this matters if you don’t live in Roeland Park. This proposed ordinance is bigger than Roeland Park. In Johnson County, we don’t turn our backs on our families and neighbors. No member of anyone’s family — gay, straight, transgender — should be discriminated against simply because of who they are. Success in protecting against discrimination in Roeland Park means success in protecting against discrimination throughout the county.

Holly Weatherford is the advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

To submit an As I See It piece, send 600 words to Grace Hobson at ghobson@kcstar.com.

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