Most of the state’s largest cities have passed ordinances prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. In places such as Johnson County, where the laws have become nearly ubiquitous, the regulations add a local layer to court-extended federal and state LGBTQ protections. But more than half of the state’s population lives in places that aren’t covered by local ordinances, and the conflict between prohibiting discrimination and guaranteeing religious freedom is likely to continue. Can communities be made safe places for all Kansans?
Jae Moyer felt surprisingly good after attending a Shawnee City Council meeting in August 2019. The council had passed a nondiscrimination ordinance protecting people based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
Moyer stopped at a gas station after the meeting and was “shocked” by an increased sense of safety.
“I was like, these people can’t discriminate against me anymore because we have this ordinance,” Moyer says. “It was just this really cool feeling. … I think community members in general do feel safer because of that.”
Moyer, 23 in February, lives in Overland Park, and ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the Johnson County Community College Board of Trustees last fall. They are a part-time student at the college while working full time.
Moyer identifies as gay and gender nonconforming and uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns. They are also the vice chair of the Kansas City metro chapter of Equality Kansas, a group that seeks to stop discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity through education, public policy advocacy and political action. Moyer specified that they were speaking to The Journal not on behalf of Equality Kansas but as a member of the LGBTQ community and an engaged citizen with an interest in public service.
Despite feeling safer because of the ordinance, Moyer thinks such prohibitions won’t fully solve the problem of discrimination against LGBTQ people. Moyer visited Oak Park Mall last year in Overland Park “and people were giving me dirty looks because I had a rainbow on my mask. Somebody called me a slur as I walked past them.”
And not every LGBTQ Kansan lives in environments with similar local protections.
“Many LGBTQ people feel very alone and unsafe in places like Kansas. It leads to mental health problems and an increased rate of suicide.”
But the nondiscrimination ordinances (NDOs) that allow Moyer to feel protected go too far in infringing on the rights of others, says Chuck Weber, executive director of the Topeka-based Kansas Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Catholic Bishops of Kansas, and a former Republican Kansas state representative.
Weber says the legal protections local ordinances provide are unnecessary because existing state and federal laws already prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. He also believes that such local laws violate the First Amendment’s religious liberty protections, even though ordinances like one passed in Wichita last fall include exceptions for religious groups.
“If religious organizations are completely exempt – and I don’t think they are – then there’s no problem whatsoever with religious organizations and the NDOs,” he says. “But … the individual citizen, primarily business owners, don’t have an exemption. We’re deeply concerned about people using the NDO to force private business owners to violate their deeply held religious beliefs.”
Yet highlighting such values conflicts feels increasingly difficult for those who see guarantees for LGBTQ rights conflicting with expressions of their faith. Weber says that oftentimes, people who oppose the municipal ordinances on religious grounds “don’t want to touch” the issue by publicly opposing the laws because they “end up being branded a bigot, including me.”
Perhaps underscoring those dynamics is the difficulty The Journal had in getting some religious organizations in Johnson County to talk on the record about whether anything has changed for them since the passage of nondiscrimination ordinances by several municipalities in the state’s most populous county. Pastors with seven Christian churches of various denominations in Overland Park and Olathe either declined to comment or didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Only Susan Langhauser, senior pastor of Advent Lutheran Church in Olathe, a supporter of such ordinances, responded to the magazine’s requests for comment last fall.
Weber says many people of faith “very likely” will try to avoid controversy and conflict over the ordinances and “may already be quietly adhering” to them, “basically forced to violate their deeply held religious beliefs to avoid publicity and public ridicule.”
The Catholic Church addresses the issue by teaching “authentic love and care, not hate and bigotry,” Weber says.
“First and foremost, the Catholic Church follows the Gospel and teachings of Jesus Christ,” Weber says. “The church calls upon all people to treat everyone with dignity and respect. While this does not always happen, and we can all do better, this is the call and invitation from the Catholic Church. The position of the Catholic Church is that we are adamantly opposed to any unjust discrimination.”
A Rapidly Changing Landscape
An increasing number of places in the state have been choosing to formalize protections for LGBTQ Kansans in their communities.
Earlier this year, Wichita became the 20th city in Kansas to implement a nondiscrimination ordinance that protects individuals in private employment, housing and public accommodation as a result of sexual orientation or gender identity. (Disclosure: The Kansas Leadership Center, publisher of The Journal, was paid $17,800 by the city of Wichita to facilitate conversations among stakeholders in the debate and produce a report about the ordinance. The reporter who developed this story did not participate in that effort.)
Wichita occupies a notable spot in the political history of the gay rights movement and its clashes with religious conservatives, events that were detailed in author C.J. Janovy’s book on LGBTQ activism in Kansas, “No Place Like Home.” In September 1977 on a 3-2 vote, the City Commission passed one of the nation’s first gay rights ordinances. The backlash was immediate and fierce.
A local anti-pornography group, Concerned Citizens for Community Standards – led by the Rev. Ron Adrian, the pastor of Glenville Baptist Church – collected 31,000 signatures to force a referendum on the ordinance. The group reportedly spent about $50,000 on its campaign. That sum included a $10,000 donation from a national anti-gay group headed up by pop singer Anita Bryant, who made an appearance in Wichita to argue for repeal.
In May 1978, Wichitans went to the polls and voted by a 5-to-1 margin to jettison the ordinance. Looking back, the outlines of contemporary clashes are evident, although the adversaries are now better funded and organized, media savvy and politically adroit.
The passage of ordinances in places such as Overland Park and Olathe, the most recent Johnson County cities to have enacted such laws back in 2019, represents significant gains for LGBTQ rights advocates after decades of discrimination, from harassment in public to being fired, and legal setbacks and reversals at the state and local levels. Such ordinances have increasingly been backed by the corporate business community, who see them as tools to help communities attract younger workers and diversify their workforces.
The ordinances typically include financial penalties for violations. Overland Park’s imposes a fine up to $1,000 per incident if discrimination is found. Olathe’s imposes a fine of up to $500 per incident.
They also don’t cover every situation. Ordinances in Olathe and Overland Park contain several exemptions, as do most if not all in other cities. Overland Park’s exempts religious and nonprofit fraternal or social organizations, federal agencies and Indian tribes. Olathe’s exempts religious and political organizations, educational institutions, federal and state agencies, law enforcement agencies and employers with fewer than 10 employees.
Overland Park City Attorney Tammy Owens says the exemptions generally are based on rights protected by other laws in the city code. The Olathe exemptions are based on other municipal codes and federal or state laws or legal precedent, City Attorney Ron Shaver says. Local protections hinge on legislation being passed by local governing bodies. But federal protections are based on court rulings. The U.S. Supreme Court weighed in on the issue on June 15, 2020, when it ruled 6-3 in Bostock v. Clayton County (Georgia), which was consolidated with two other related cases, that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 provides employment protection based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
In delivering the court’s opinion, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote that Congress in Title VII “adopted broad language making it illegal for an employer to rely on an employee’s sex when deciding to fire that employee. We do not hesitate to recognize today a necessary consequence of that legislative choice: An employer who fires an individual merely for being gay or transgender defies the law.”
A subsequent decision by the Kansas Human Rights Commission extended protections reflected in that federal case to the state level. But the legal structure that provides protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity is relatively recent at all three levels. Even the majority of the local laws that have been put on the books were passed in 2019 or later, and they are rarely formally invoked. Researching the topic last fall, reporter Celia Hack of The Wichita Beacon, a nonprofit news site, found that only two complaints had been filed under LGBTQ-inclusive nondiscrimination ordinances across 15 Kansas cities since 2015.
And although nine of the state’s 10 largest cities have nondiscrimination ordinances in place that cover sexual orientation and gender identity, protections are confined to locales in just six of the state’s 105 counties. More than half of the state’s population, although presently covered by federal and state guidelines, doesn’t have similar local protections.
A history of progress and setbacks – cities such as Hutchinson and Salina have passed protections for LGBTQ residents only to have them repealed by voters – helps contribute to a sense among some supporters that protections are too often fragile in nature. Opponents, many of them conservative and politically active, claim that efforts to clamp down on discrimination clash with their interpretations of Christianity and are an assault of their freedoms.
Greater Protection, Less Fear?
Although nondiscrimination ordinances make many in the LGBTQ community feel more welcome and supported, unease can linger. Taryn Jones is chair of the Kansas City metro chapter of Equality Kansas. Jones lives in Overland Park and identifies as a cisgender lesbian woman.
“I think when you don’t have to worry about getting kicked out of your house or losing your job, there’s a lot less stress there and more comfort to live,” Jones says.
But Jones expresses concern about the possibility of repeal. Passing the ordinances was easier in some Johnson County cities than in others, and the process is “always two steps forward, one step back.”
Margeaux Seymour, co-chair of Johnson County Pride, feels more welcome and supported and says others also are because of the ordinances. Seymour attended some council meetings where the ordinances passed and felt “an overwhelming sense of relief.”
But fear remains.
“The fear comes from not knowing how the discrimination may manifest or how severe it will be,” Seymour says. “Will it be defamation of character remarks, letters mailed to homes, harassment, bullying, dismissal of existence or any physical acts? Any of these can happen at any time. This is why these ordinances are so vital to ensuring the well-being, both physical and mental, of those who identify as LGBTQIA+.”
Inoru Morris is executive director of the Midwest Rainbow Research Institute, based in Kansas City, Missouri. Morris, who identifies as nonbinary and gay, says nondiscrimination ordinances are “monumental” because they make LGBTQ community members feel more represented from a policy standpoint and give victims a way to seek justice, though they don’t protect them from feeling fear of possible discrimination and “are always going to be first-step scenarios.”
“We need to see a lot more comprehensive policies put into place by governments and governing institutions … into creating an inclusive and equitable environment for all peoples, including LGBTQ.”
Carolyn Finken-Dove has a somewhat different perspective on the issue as the mother of a daughter who identifies as queer, which “used to be a derogatory term but has been reclaimed.” Finken-Dove is a board member of PFLAG Kansas City, a politically active organization that supports the civil rights of LGBTQ people. She says a universal remedy through state or federal legislation would be better than individual city ordinances.
We’re ‘Not Wanted’
But for opponents, the passage of NDOs sends a signal that some believers, particularly conservative Christians, are less welcome in the public sphere. Brittany Jones is the director of policy and engagement for the Topeka-based Kansas Family Voice, a Christian organization that fosters biblical values and is active politically. She is a Christian and a lawyer licensed in Kansas. She does not litigate, but in her role with the organization she specializes from an academic perspective in religious freedom and the First Amendment.
Jones says that despite their religious exemptions, the ordinances present “some very important religious freedom concerns” for organizations and individuals.
“Our understanding of the Constitution is that the government is not supposed to impose on people’s religious beliefs; it’s supposed to allow them to live out those beliefs,” Jones says. “And these ordinances do just that, and from that perspective they’re huge religious freedom problems.”
She says various pastors but mostly “everyday people of faith” are concerned that the ordinances in the long run target people of faith across the country and are intended to make them comply despite their “Judeo-Christian belief about marriage and sexuality.” An ordinance is “almost a gag order for many of these civic-minded organizations.”
She cites as an example women’s shelters, whether run by a religious or secular organization, which need to separate men and women to protect women who have been abused by men. She says the ordinances require shelters to allow biological men into their facilities, which has occurred in Alaska, and subjects them to penalties for violations.
Jones says religious organizations should have a constitutional right to provide their services, and governments should encourage them because they base their work on their belief in a higher power and on serving the community based on faith.
“These ordinances essentially tell those organizations that they’re not wanted,” she says. “And in fact, our community needs those organizations more than ever.”
Assertions that people who oppose nondiscrimination ordinances on religious grounds are hateful and bigoted are familiar to Jones. She gets called that “all the time.”
She sometimes invites people with opposing views to get together over coffee and discuss their differing views. A few have accepted her invitations and they’ve had civil conversations, but “typically I get a disgusted look.” More often, she’s had these conversations in passing.
She says it’s “very upsetting and just very bad” that conversations about important issues often descend to name-calling.
“What I’ve learned is that normally when people who hold opposing views can get to know me, and likewise when I get to know them, we find out that we’re all human and we all have value in the eyes of God,” she says, “and that we have differing opinions but we can still love each other. But when it comes to policy matters, I’m never going to surrender and give the government a sword to go after people of faith, and that’s what a nondiscrimination ordinance is.”
One Church’s Stance
But religious opposition is not universal, either. Nearly three dozen Wichita area faith leaders last fall signed a letter to the editor to The Wichita Eagle in support of Wichita’s ordinance.
Langhauser, senior pastor of Advent Lutheran Church in Olathe, says the ordinances reflect cultural changes and growing support for communities who feel no recognition and who consequently suffer from it. Most members of her congregation were happy to learn of Olathe’s ordinance, though some congregants who opposed it on scriptural grounds raised the issue with her.
She bases her responses largely on nonbinding teaching documents her denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, uses on various topics, including one on human sexuality. The denomination uses the documents as a foundation to prompt congregants to think about and discuss the issues.
The denomination has ordained gays and lesbians for years but until 2009 required them to pledge celibacy, Langhauser says. That year, the requirement was lifted for gays and lesbians who were in lifelong, monogamous, committed relationships. It later extended that stance to include people in nonbinary and gender identity categories.
Many members of the denomination opposed the change and felt they had to leave the church “because they didn’t want anybody to think they believed other than what they believed,” she says, “which is always saddening to a senior pastor, to look out at your people and say, ‘I don’t know why you think everybody has to agree with everything when this just helps us talk about it.’”
The current polarized political environment leads people to entrench their political views and look for fallacies in opponents’ arguments, Langhauser says.
She responds by focusing on pastoral care. Conversations and conflicts arise about different scriptural interpretations regarding sexuality, “but it’s always going to come back to the value of one human person being created by God.”
She says most congregations she is familiar with struggle to allow congregants to ask questions because it shows a lack of faith. But asking questions “was part of God’s DNA with Israel.” If a Jewish congregant, for example, converses with a rabbi on an issue but stumbles in their argument, the rabbi will “switch sides and try to help you to come to what it is you’re really grappling with.”
She thinks the church in general has lost its community leadership by discouraging members to ask questions and has “forgotten why the rules are there in the first place – so we can form community, live together, help each other and worship together.”
Christians are called to educate themselves, pray, discern and make decisions about what Scripture is saying, Langhauser says, “as what we feel God is informing us, how we feel that Scripture and reason have to go hand in hand, and everybody sees those things in different shades.”
“So, it’s kind of audacious to say that there’s any group of people who are wise enough and faithful enough to make those decisions for just everybody.”
Indeed, Taryn Jones sees little validity to religious exemptions because “there’s plenty in the Bible that we no longer follow. Using these things … to discriminate is just wrong.”
As a Christian and a practicing Methodist, Seymour advocates for religion and faith that aren’t “about discrimination” but rather “unconditional love and caring for humankind.” As someone who struggled with identity and self-acceptance as a teenager, Seymour forged strong connections between faith and advocacy for the LGBTQ community.
Conflicts and Common Ground
Debates over nondiscrimination ordinances, even in the places where they pass, can be divisive and bitter. And members of the LGBTQ community can find the experience of participating in them hurtful and disillusioning.
Taryn Jones has witnessed conflict during public comment periods at council meetings. It was “emotionally draining and kind of traumatic to be sitting in this room with a bunch of people who are saying all these horrible things about you.” In continuing to work with council members who were opponents, “You have to move past that if you want to get other things done.”
Morris says some people always will oppose such proposals and she has attended Overland Park City Council meetings where “there’s always some individual that causes a scene and uses hateful rhetoric,” arguing they should be allowed to discriminate “because their religious text says it’s a sin and violates their religious conscience.
“Unfortunately, as neutral as individuals like to pretend that statement is, it’s not neutral because there’s a history of mistranslation with biblical Scripture throughout the United States that hasn’t really come into the forefront of conversation,” Morris says.
Yet Moyer has seen people on opposing sides of the issue try to find common ground, albeit with mixed results. Angela Stiens, who narrowly won a Shawnee City Council seat last fall, invited Moyer to go to her church, a “stereotypical Catholic, cut and dried, fire and brimstone kind of church.” They met several other times to discuss the issue, and Stiens “was very gracious with me,” Moyer says. They discussed why Stiens saw the ordinance as infringing on her religious liberties.
“That’s how she saw it,” Moyer says. “I had tried in depth to explain to her how taxing and harmful that was to the LGBTQ community.”
Stiens did not return a call seeking comment about her discussions with Moyer.
Sometimes the debates can be more about the details of the language in the ordinance than they are about overarching ideological debates.
Overland Park City Council Member Jim Kite voted no when his community’s ordinance was adopted. But he and Taryn Jones had met and listened to each other’s concerns, “and I think that’s important,” she says.
“Discrimination is always wrong,” Taryn Jones says. “While I feel like it’s important to listen to each side and kind of come to an understanding of where they’re coming from, I don’t feel like finding common ground really includes losing part of our rights for the sake of compromise.”
Kite has been an Overland Park council member for eight years and won reelection this past fall. He doesn’t plan to run again.
He says he voted against the city’s ordinance because of ambiguities around one detail – it established a “duty” for all individuals and entities doing business within the city to not discriminate based on sexual orientation or gender identity, among other previously established categories.
Establishing a duty “underscored the need to establish a state statute,” Kite says, because an appeal would have to go to state court. Kite also says municipal ordinances mainly concern things such as “painting your house or speeding tickets” and questioned whether taking such action at the municipal level was the right approach.
But he says he supports the principle of prohibiting discrimination against someone based on their sexual orientation or gender identity.
In places where nondiscrimination ordinances are in effect, it doesn’t appear that the issue is on the verge of being reopened anytime soon. Instead, disagreements are likely to surface again on other, related topics.
“I see it popping up again when we start to talk again about issues on gender identity and affirmation policy, but I think that is a fight for school districts and state legislation,” Morris says.
Morris defines affirmation policy as transgender therapies with psychologists, families and children who say they are transgender to lay the groundwork for hormone therapy and gender affirmation surgery when they turn 18.
The values conflict between protecting LGBTQ Kansans from discrimination locally and ensuring that Kansans of faith get to live out the tenets of their faith in private and public life isn’t likely to go away anytime soon.
But how communities choose to adjudicate those discussions, and whether they even choose to have them at all, remains an open question that cities and counties across the state might continue to address for years to come.
- What different interpretations about nondiscrimination ordinances do you see reflected in this story?
- To what extent do you think individuals are able to hold and test interpretations being made by groups outside their own on topics like this? What would it look like if they did?
- What are the competing values that communities are choosing between when they consider nondiscrimination ordinances?
- To what extent are these values mutually exclusive and to what extent can they be reconciled?
A version of this article appears in the Winter 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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