Archive for Friday, January 15, 2016

Kansas gay rights bill sparks debate in legislative committee

January 15, 2016

— Supporters of an anti-discrimination bill that would protect gay, lesbian and transgender Kansans from discrimination told a House committee Thursday the bill is needed to protect those individuals from needless harassment, abuse and discrimination.

But opponents of the bill said it would open the floodgates to lawsuits against churches, and even business owners, who object to gay and lesbian relationships on religious grounds, and that it would result in a loss of religious freedoms for others.

Those were just some of the arguments heard in the House Judiciary Committee during a hearing on House Bill 2323, which would add sexual orientation and gender identity to the list of protected classifications in the Kansas Act Against Discrimination.

Sandra Meade, of Olathe, a Navy veteran and former Defense Department analyst who described herself as transgender, told the panel of the difficulties she and other transgender residents face in a state such as Kansas that offers them no legal protections.

"Once they come out, many transgender people are faced with a loss of respect and privilege, regardless of their personal history prior to the moment they came out," Meade said. "It's as if prior life experience and accomplishments were of no value, and their dreams and hopes of no interest."

"Loss of employment or homelessness are the fates that await too many, whether they be professionals or service industry workers," she said.

Tom Witt, executive director of the gay rights advocacy group Equality Kansas, said gay and lesbian children are the ones most in need of protection.

He cited statistics that show 1.3 million children are living on the streets in the United States, many of them runaways, and that one in three of them are lured into prostitution within 48 hours of running away.

But in 2013, he said, Kansas lawmakers objected to proposed regulations that would have banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation for those children seeking refuge in safe houses run by the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.

"These are the people that we think need to be protected, who are most vulnerable," he said. "One of the reasons for not wanting to include sexual orientation in the safe house regulations was because it was not in state statute. Including sexual orientation and gender identity in the non-discrimination statutes is going to protect these tens of thousands of kids in Kansas who are vulnerable to human trafficking."

But opponents of the bill said that would open the doors to a flood of other legal issues and could subject businesses, and even churches, to lawsuits if they refuse to participate in same-sex marriages or cater to the LGBT community.

Rep. Jan Pauls, R-Hutchinson, a member of the committee, testified against the bill, saying it would dilute the rights of all other protected classes in the non-discrimination law because the bill would protect both homosexual and heterosexual individuals from discrimination.

"Our concern is that once you add sexual orientation that basically protects every individual in the state, because someone's heterosexual, or homosexual, or any of these other provisions," Pauls said, "once you put everybody into a protected class, that basically destroys the whole concept of a protected class."

But most of the opposition testimony came from Kellie Fiedorek, an attorney with the Alliance Defending Freedom, a national conservative Christian organization, who said the bill would subject business owners such as florists and caterers to liability if they refuse on religious grounds to participate in same-sex weddings.

She spoke of one client she represents in Washington state, which has a similar law, who is now being sued by a former employee after declining to provide flowers for his wedding with another man.

"What she could not do was be forced by the government to participate in a certain event that conflicted with her deeply-held religious beliefs about what marriage is," Fiedorek said. "This is a critical distinction."

The committee took no action on the bill Thursday. Rep. John Barker, R-Salina, who chairs the committee, said the panel is only holding hearings during the early part of the session and decisions will be made later about which ones to consider sending to the floor of the full House.

House Majority Leader Jene Vickrey, R-Louisburg, said the hearing showed there were many questions and issues surrounding protection for gay rights, including whether the bill would put churches and religious organizations in legal jeopardy.

But Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, who sponsored the bill, said the Kansas Act Against Discrimination already exempts churches, religious groups and fraternal organizations. He conceded, though, that the bill is unlikely to go anywhere unless there is pressure from the general public.

"The future progress of this bill does not depend on what happens inside this Statehouse," he said. "The future progress of this bill will depend on what happens in society as a whole. It will take the input of individuals who are opposed to discrimination to persuade the current Legislature that this bill should become the law of Kansas."

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