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SPOTLIGHT
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Social issues stoke conservative fire

Published on -9/16/2012, 1:43 PM

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While press and punditry diligently tracked Gov. Sam Brownback's effort to unseat moderate Republicans in the August primaries, they've largely overlooked a development that is energizing conservatives in two Kansas cities for the general election.

In Salina and Hutchinson, battles are being waged over local ordinances that outlaw discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered residents. In both communities, ordinances passed by the city commissions have been challenged by citizen petition, forcing the question onto the Nov. 6 ballot.

In Hutchinson, the ordinance passed in June prohibited discrimination against LGBT residents in housing and employment; the Salina ordinance, which passed in May, also covered discrimination in accommodations, a broad category that opponents say would require, for example, that churches rent out meeting rooms to gay-rights organizations.

In both Hutchinson and Salina, a grassroots effort to repeal these ordinances was under way this summer and culminated in the certification of petitions earlier this month. In both cities, opponents of the ordinances had no trouble gathering far more signatures than needed to advance the issue to the general election.

Now, voters in those communities, who may have assumed their vote in Kansas' lopsided presidential balloting wouldn't matter, will be drawn to the polls in November.

Salina and Hutchinson are not the first Kansas cities to confront a division over this issue. A similar ordinance was passed in Manhattan in 2011, but before protest petitions could be submitted, a local election changed membership on the city commission, which then repealed the protections for LGBT residents.

On the front lines of the battle are two organizations. The Kansas Equality Coalition, a pro-gay rights group with at least 11 chapters across Kansas, was successful in securing passage of a local antidiscrimination law and domestic-partner registry in Lawrence. For the KEC, adding LGBT residents to local nondiscrimination laws is, pure and simple, a matter of civil rights.

The opposition is led by the Kansas Family Policy Council, which views the issue, just as purely and simply, as a question of religious freedom for those who oppose gay rights. At the core of KFPC's argument is opposition to same-sex marriage and a belief that the law should not force an employer, landlord or business owner who opposes gay rights on religious grounds to violate his or her own beliefs.

It's clear that Kansas voters, 70 percent of whom approved the constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage and civil unions in 2005, have not embraced the LGBT community's equal-rights claim. However, social conservatives who insist that this is a matter of religious liberty, that their civil rights also are at stake, are setting up a constitutional conflict that eventually will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, and, if history is a guide, not in their favor.

President Obama's announcement this summer that he now supports the right to marry for same-sex couples, while not persuasive in Kansas, was a watershed moment for this issue. It followed the historic end of the U.S. military's don't-ask-don't-tell policy last year.

Moreover, as time passes and Kansans are increasingly confronted with friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members who are gay and out, public sentiment in the state will soften. Pew survey results released this summer show a clear trend. Nationally, 48 percent now favor marriage equality, up from 31 percent in 2004.

Eventually, Kansans who oppose ordinances like those on the November ballot in Salina and Hutchinson will find themselves on the wrong side of history, as did those who cited religious objections to the expansion of civil and voting rights for women and people of color.

In the meantime, Kansans who oppose gay rights and marriage equality will remain an easily mobilized component of the state's conservative base.

Gwyn Mellinger is professor and chairwoman of the Department of Mass Media and Visual Arts at Baker University, Baldwin City.

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