Government & Politics

JoCo cities like Merriam line up to push LGBTQ protections. This time it’s not a fight

Merriam resident Brian Shapley, with Equality Kansas, speaks to the Merriam City Council in support of a proposal to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Merriam resident Brian Shapley, with Equality Kansas, speaks to the Merriam City Council in support of a proposal to prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. lhorsley@kcstar.com

Four years ago, the Roeland Park City Council fought a fierce battle over an ordinance to protect gay and transgender individuals from discrimination within the city. The measure died at one point and was only resurrected in August 2014 when the mayor cast the deciding vote.

But now, northern Johnson County cities are lining up to give serious consideration to non-discrimination ordinances protecting the LGBTQ community, using the model from Roeland Park as well as from Manhattan, Kan., Lawrence and Wyandotte County.

The Merriam City Council voted unanimously Monday night to direct staff to draft a city law prohibiting discrimination against gay and transgender people in employment and housing. Merriam follows Prairie Village and Mission in this recent push. And Overland Park City Councilman Paul Lyons floated the idea at an Oct. 17 committee meeting, although the full council there has not yet taken up the topic.

“We’re getting the snowball to roll down the hill,” Merriam City Councilman Al Frisby said Tuesday, discussing the trend of cities picking up this cause. He said he expects the Merriam council will debate specific ordinance language at its next meeting Nov. 12. It could pass that night or soon after, following revisions.

Frisby said he’s been contemplating such an ordinance for several years but was waiting for the U.S. Supreme Court to provide clarity on whether businesses can discriminate against gays and lesbians. However, this summer’s decision on a Colorado baker’s refusal to provide a wedding cake for a gay couple was made on narrow grounds and did not answer the bigger questions from a federal level.

Frisby said the state of Kansas also has failed to extend protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, so he felt it was finally time for Merriam to take action. He said he wasn’t directly motivated by Prairie Village and Mission, but was encouraged by that momentum and will look at those city drafts as well.

“It’s just mushroomed,” he said. “This is serendipitous.”

The Mission City Council heard strong support from the community Oct. 3 on a measure sponsored by Councilwoman Sollie Flora. Flora said a vote is expected in November or December.

Flora was concerned that the federal and state governments have failed to act on these protections. She said she was particularly motivated after the Kansas legislature passed a law earlier this year that allows agencies to refuse adoptions to LGBT couples.

The Prairie Village City Council is also expected to vote Nov. 19 in favor of a measure that would extend legal protections to LGBTQ members for housing, employment and receiving public services from businesses.

At Merriam on Monday night, Megan England, a former Roeland Park City councilwoman, told the gathering that a very vocal minority opposed the 2014 measure, but there have been no negative consequences. She said it’s been good for business, employment and economic development and has resulted in no litigation.

“This is not a new or experimental idea,” she said, pointing out that Kansas City adopted a similar ordinance with no bad effects back in the 1990s. An ACLU representative told the Merriam council that 225 cities have adopted such protections on a grass roots basis nationally.

Paul Osgood, a 40-year Merriam resident who taught science for decades at Trailridge Middle School, told the council that as a young man he had prayed not to be gay, but those prayers didn’t work and it wasn’t a choice.

He said he stopped lying to himself and built a wonderful life with a male partner in Johnson County, where Osgood pointed out that LGBTQ individuals are an integral part of the community. One of the highlights of their lives was when they were married three years ago.

“Thank you for taking up this issue,” he told the council. “I encourage you to make Merriam a city where all God’s people are accepted and safe.”

Only one person spoke in opposition. Merriam resident Rose Gerringer said she believes the proposed ordinance is unnecessary and that it’s wrong to codify “fluid gender preferences.” She also predicted the measure could be an onerous burden on businesses.

Council members indicated their support for the measure, although Nancy Hupp said she’s frustrated that this action is taking place city by city. “It’s a statewide issue,” she said.

Councilman Scott Diebold said he appreciated suggested clauses that clarify that nothing in the ordinance would require employers to hire an unqualified individual. Nor would the ordinance impinge on churches’ religious beliefs.

“There are people who have concerns,” Diebold said. “They have rights, too.”

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