Government & Politics

Overland Park becomes largest city in Kansas to add LGBTQ protections

Despite lingering skepticism about the strength of a city-level nondiscrimination ordinance, Overland Park officials on Monday agreed to prohibit discrimination against the LGBTQ community.

The vote came on the eve of the U.S. Supreme Court on Tuesday hearing arguments over whether federal civil rights law protects LGBTQ people from job discrimination. A ruling is expected by next summer, in which the justices will determine whether it is legal to fire employees based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.

Overland Park leaders warned that the city’s ordinance could become moot depending on the outcome of the closely watched federal cases. Officials called for state and federal laws prohibiting LGBTQ discrimination, arguing they would be more effective.

But with a 10-1 vote, council members agreed to do what they can at the city level, protecting people from being denied housing, employment or services from businesses because of sexual orientation or gender identity. Overland Park became the largest city in Kansas to pass a nondiscrimination ordinance, and it is one of the last cities in Johnson County to do so.

“There’s a part of me that says are we giving folks a false hope,” Councilman Richard Collins said. “But then there’s a part of me also that says, OK, if we’re not part of the solution then maybe we’re part of the problem.”

Under the ordinance, a person who has been discriminated against may file a written complaint with the city, which would then spark a mediation process and investigation. If a municipal judge decides a business or entity violated the nondiscrimination ordinance, the judge could impose a civil penalty of up to $1,000.

Council members argued the ordinance does not provide the broader remedies available to people who file other discrimination complaints at the state or federal level. Some argued a $1,000 fine, which would not include any compensation for the aggrieved person, was not enough of a deterrent.

“We’re saying discrimination against this protected class is illegal. But it’s illegal, like making an illegal left turn is,” Councilman Dave White said. “We can’t send people to jail for discrimination. We cannot award the person who was discriminated against any damages.”

White also warned that the city ordinance might be challenged in court, saying a city of Overland Park’s size might be a “target” for lawsuits. He pointed to years-long lawsuits in other states, including Arizona and Kentucky, where businesses have refused gay customers service.

Like other ordinances across Johnson County, Overland Park’s statute provides exemptions for religious and faith-based organizations.

“Realistically, most people will be able to get out of this ordinance on a religious basis,” White said. “Frankly, I’m sitting here as a Roman Catholic and it’s against my religion. But I’m going to vote for the thing anyway. … It does say who we are. It says we will not tolerate this.”

Even council members who were concerned about the enforcement of the ordinance said it is at least an important gesture. Councilman Jim Kite was the only one to vote against it. He explained he has concerns with the wording of the ordinance, but he believes the mediation process could be helpful for aggrieved citizens.

At times sounding exasperated, several council members called for state legislators to add LGBTQ protections in Kansas.

Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly in January signed an executive order banning state agencies from discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity when deciding whether to hire, promote, discipline or fire employees. But a push to expand the state’s anti-discrimination laws went nowhere.

Councilman Logan Heley encouraged residents to contact Kansas Senate Majority Leader Jim Denning, a Republican from Overland Park, and urge the state to take action.

“To our LGBTQ friends, who live, work, worship, attend school and patronize our businesses, you deserve love,” Heley said. “You deserve to live your live, you deserve respect, and you’re welcome in the city of Overland Park. That’s why I’m supporting this ordinance.”

Council members said the city may amend the nondiscrimination ordinance depending on the upcoming decision by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Now that Overland Park has passed LGBTQ protections, Olathe is the only city in Johnson County’s “big five” without a nondiscrimination ordinance. The Olathe, Blue Valley, Shawnee Mission and De Soto school districts all have passed LGBTQ protections for students and staff.

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Sarah Ritter covers Johnson County for The Kansas City Star. Formerly a reporter for the Quad-City Times, Sarah is a graduate of Augustana College.