Government & Politics

More Johnson County cities are adopting LGBTQ protections, but not the big ones

LGBT Protections pushed in Olathe

Advocates are frustrated that the Olathe City Council has not been willing to discuss a measure to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.
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Advocates are frustrated that the Olathe City Council has not been willing to discuss a measure to protect LGBT individuals from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations.

Equality Kansas representatives get calls every month from people who have been fired, evicted or kicked out of restaurants for being gay or transgender, the LGBTQ advocacy group’s executive director said.

They often have to tell them there’s nothing they can do.

Kansas law prohibits discrimination on the basis of “race, color, religion, sex, disability, national origin, or ancestry.” Federal law covers much of the same ground. Despite the overlap between the two, there’s a gap that allows a certain kind of discrimination: if it’s based on whether you are LGBTQ.

In Johnson County, nondiscrimination ordinances, or NDOs, have become a heated topic of discussion as some cities have passed them, some have not, and some have endorsed the underlying protections but haven’t yet acted on them.

Executive director Tom Witt said Equality Kansas has been pushing for years for change at whatever level possible.

“The legislature is refusing to act on this, so we’re going to work where we can. And if that means going city by city, then we’ll go city by city,” Witt said.

The first Johnson County city to pass an NDO was Roeland Park in 2014. In 2018, Prairie Village and Mission each passed the protections. This year so far, Merriam, Mission Woods, Mission Hills and Westwood Hills have passed them.

“It’s a long slow project,” Witt said, adding that they worked for years in Roeland Park before it was passed there. “It may seem things are moving quickly in Johnson County right now, but it’s because we’ve been working there for several years on this.”

So where do NDOs in the other cities of Johnson County stand?

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The Big Five

The five biggest cities — Overland Park, Olathe, Shawnee, Lenexa and Leawood — do not have nondiscrimination ordinances in place.

Overland Park, the largest city, passed a resolution asking the state legislature to enact nondiscrimination laws, but it is not considering any city-level ordinance to make the rules itself. City spokesman Sean Reilly said the city is waiting on the state legislature and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lenexa passed a similar resolution, and it, too, is waiting on action from the state legislature or U.S. Supreme Court.

The U.S. Supreme Court has taken up three cases for the session starting this fall that could allow it to rule on whether or not LGBTQ identity is protected under existing civil rights laws, but any decisions would not be likely until next summer or so.

Leawood decided in a January meeting that LGBTQ protections would be part of its plan for 2019, said City Administrator Scott Lambers. The city had expected the legislature to act this session, and since it did not the city has not publicly discussed the issue, Lambers said.

In Olathe, LGBTQ advocates have been turning up the pressure on their city council because they believe the politicians are dragging their feet. The council passed a resolution like Overland Park and Lenexa, but a full ordinance has not yet been taken up for debate.

Things came to a head in the city earlier this month when a council member, who is up for re-election, suggested waiting to take up the issue until after ballots are cast in November.

Advocates were outraged and yelled and walked out of the June 4 meeting. They pledged to keep speaking at each council meeting. Before this week’s meeting they were informed that the city would begin enforcing a 30-minute limit on public comments, which has been in place since 2003, but was not enforced before.

The issue hasn’t come up formally in Shawnee yet.

“It’s definitely something on our radar, but there hasn’t been any action taken on it, certainly not by any of the elected officials or our governing body as a whole,” said Julie Breithaupt, communications manager for the city.

Smaller cities

Westwood has had housing protections in place for LGBTQ people since the early 1990s, said City Clerk Fred Sherman, but it does not yet have a broader NDO drafted. Sherman said there is a majority consensus on the council to take up the issue.

“I believe it’s something we’ll likely have drafted and up for consideration this calendar year,” he said.

Fairway, too, is likely to take up the NDA conversation in the near future, according to the city administrator.

Gardner, Edgerton and De Soto do not have NDOs in place, and it hasn’t been discussed or proposed there, city officials from each said.

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