More than two years ago, advocates for gay, lesbian and transgender individuals urged the Olathe City Council to adopt protections against discrimination for the LGBTQ community.
Now, as they’ve watched Prairie Village and other Johnson County cities ratify non-discrimination ordinances, they are growing increasingly frustrated that Olathe isn’t taking action.
“It’s a cop out,” said Cassandra Peters, an Olathe resident who runs an LGBT youth group and community education program called JoCo Q-Space. “It should have happened a long time ago.”
Olathe resident Brett Hoedl, who chairs the metro chapter of the LGBT rights group Equality Kansas, agrees.
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Hoedl, Peters and others approached Olathe city officials in late 2016 about the need for an ordinance to ban discrimination on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, with relation to housing, employment or receiving public services from stores, restaurants and other businesses. They wanted the local law because federal and Kansas laws that ban discrimination on the basis of race, religion and other factors don’t protect LGBTQ rights.
Equality Kansas representatives and others realize Olathe isn’t Johnson County’s only big city. They have recently talked to officials in Overland Park and Shawnee. Those cities also have yet to act.
But in Olathe, Peters and Hoedl were told in late 2016 to work with the city’s Human Relations Commission, which is appointed by the mayor to promote diversity and inclusion.
After two years of discussions, the commission agreed an ordinance is needed, and sent a formal recommendation to the city Jan. 11.
The mayor and city council have not taken it up for discussion, even as Prairie Village and Mission enacted such laws in December and Merriam followed suit in January. The Mission Hills City Council has also just directed staff to draft such an ordinance. More than 200 other cities and counties across the country have such laws.
Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland was not available for an interview. In a statement late Thursday to The Star, he said the city has been presented with a great deal of information, but questions remain.
“We will not simply create an ordinance without the capacity to fairly investigate claims and a process to fairly adjudicate them. Among other issues, we need to understand what capacity is required, including staffing, training, and cost. We need to understand how long it would take to have that capacity in place and attempt to understand the difference it will make for the community. There is not a cookie-cutter approach that necessarily fits Olathe. That is why our staff is looking into this issue.”
It shouldn’t have taken more than two years with the Human Relations Commission, and then more delays, Hoedl argues.
“We went through the process,” he said. “ We did everything they asked. The commission is telling them this is needed, and they are still waiting.”
City spokesman Tim Danneberg said Olathe, which has about 140,000 residents, is much bigger than the small northern Johnson County communities that have passed non-discrimination ordinances. So if discrimination complaints are filed, he said, Olathe faces potentially higher costs for investigations and hearings and needs clarification about the city’s legal authority to prosecute alleged violations.
He said Overland Park and other Johnson County cities are also grappling with how such a local law would be enforced, adding, “I know that we are talking to the larger cities, and our attorneys are getting our arms around this.”
Danneberg said local governments are limited in their punitive enforcement capacity, because it’s just a municipal violation, with a proposed civil penalty of up to $500. In Prairie Village, the city prosecutor’s office would investigate complaints, and a magistrate judge could issue fines up to $1,000.
“Everybody ideally would see this issue at the state or federal level being addressed, where it would have a more meaningful process and resolution,” Danneberg said.
Hoedl sees the city’s response as a stalling tactic that delays justice.
“We have a full municipal court system that could adjudicate these laws. Kansas City, Mo., has enacted these. Wyandotte County enacted it across the county,” he said. “To say we don’t have the capacity strikes me as a lack of leadership and willingness to do it.”
Hoedl is married and has five children, including a 13-year-old gay son. Peters is bisexual and has a transgender son. They don’t expect the city to be inundated with complaints, but they are aware of anecdotes of discrimination and hostility. An ordinance would send a strong message, they say, that Olathe’s LGBTQ residents can live their lives without fear of bigotry or hate.
Hoedl said he wants to make sure that when his 13-year-old gay son seeks his first job, his sexual orientation doesn’t interfere with his employment opportunities. He wants gay couples to be able to go to a bar without fear of being denied service.
“This is extremely important to me and I think it’s extremely important to many families around Olathe,” he said.
Peters recalls that in September 2017, members of Olathe Northwest’s Gender-Sexuality Alliance club were ridiculed and pelted with candy by fellow students during the school’s homecoming parade. A rally the following rainy Monday drew a gratifyingly supportive response, she said.
While a non-discrimination ordinance wouldn’t directly address the school situation, Peters argued it would “make sure we are valued as community members and that we have the protection that everyone else has.”
Since December 2016, Peters has met repeatedly with the Olathe Human Relations Commission, persuading members this was needed. Last November, the commission agreed that without it, Olathe LGBTQ residents could be fired from their jobs, denied housing or denied service in a restaurant or other public accommodation.
LGBT rights advocates are also pushing Overland Park and other cities to consider a non-discrimination ordinance.
But Overland Park Mayor Carl Gerlach is pushing a different approach. He told The Star he sees real hope for a state law on the issue, which would be the most comprehensive answer.
Two newly elected, openly gay Kansas lawmakers have filed a bill this month in the state legislature to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the state’s existing non-discrimination law.
Such bills have been introduced in the past and have languished. But Gerlach said he thinks there’s strong support this year, and Overland Park should throw its weight behind that effort. He plans to ask the City Council on Feb. 18 for a resolution supporting that state action.
“If we can do something quick that would help support passage of that bill, that would be the best solution for everybody,” he said. “It would be statewide and would apply equally to all the cities.”
Olathe Mayor Michael Copeland said in his email to Hoedl that state action could be more effective.
Hoedl replied that his group certainly supports a state law. But he’s still skeptical it can get past the Kansas House and Senate leadership. As an example of the ongoing hostility to LGBTQ individuals, Hoedl pointed to another bill just introduced that would label same-sex marriages “parody marriages” and stop the state from recognizing them.
He said it’s time for Overland Park and especially Olathe to take a stand.
With a local non-discrimination ordinance, he said, “You can breathe a sigh of relief.”
“At the end of the day it’s about giving our residents the ability to live their lives authentically,” he said, “and not have fear be present in everything they do.”