TOPEKA — Conflicting sentiments grounded in deeply held interpretations of freedom emerged Thursday at a House committee hearing on a bill adding sexual orientation and gender identity to Kansas’ list of classes protected from discrimination.
The legislation has little chance of adoption by the Republican-dominated House and Senate or of earning the signature of Gov. Sam Brownback, who rescinded in February an executive order providing protection from discrimination to lesbian, bisexual and transgender state employees.
Under current law, Kansans are shielded from discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on race, religion, color, sex, disability, family status, national origin or ancestry.
Kellie Fiedorek, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom, told the House Judiciary Committee passage of House Bill 2323 in Kansas would jeopardize freedoms, threaten personal safety and expose the state to financial liability.
The organization has more than 40 attorneys who litigate cases on same-sex marriage, religion and abortion.
“Many nondiscrimination laws are now being leveraged by the government to coerce compliance with a political agenda and force Americans to participate in or support events and ideas in conflict with their convictions,” she said.
On the other hand, Olathe resident Sandra Meade said state lawmakers should occupy themselves with ensuring the dignity, safety and legal equality of all Kansans by endorsing the bill. She is a U.S. Navy veteran who worked on classified Department of Defense programs tied to the Space Shuttle and B-2 bomber.
Meade, chairwoman of Equality Kansas, is transgender and knows the toll society extracts from people who come out. Homelessness, violence and job loss are common, she said. People like herself are abandoned by their faith community and family.
“It’s as if prior life experiences and accomplishments were of no value and their dreams and hopes of no interest,” she said.
“The environment today, which provides false motive for discrimination and escalating violence, is created by organizations that hope to roll back progress in LGBT rights. They shamelessly pedal harmful tropes, which demonize and dehumanize the transgender community, preying on our most base instinct — fear.”
After approximately 90 minutes of testimony and a handful of questions from legislators, Chairman John Barker, R-Abilene, adjourned the meeting.
Rep. John Carmichael, the Wichita Democrat who introduced the bill, said the hearing demonstrated how legislators could take up a contentious and emotionally charged issue in a professional manner.
If this bill fails in Kansas, he said, forces outside the Kansas Capitol will eventually bring to account those who persist with LGBT discrimination.
Rep. Jan Pauls, a Hutchinson Republican, testified in opposition to the bill and said the ideological basis of the measure was the “mainstreaming of homosexual behavior and associated aberrant behaviors.”
She said the state overwhelmingly affirmed the position by approval of an amendment to the Kansas Constitution banning same-sex marriages. The U.S. Supreme Court subsequently ruled such provisions unconstitutional.
“The strongly held beliefs and moral compass of such a huge portion of the Kansas population is no small thing,” Pauls said. “This behavior is considered immoral and repugnant by a large percentage of Kansans.”
Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, said the proposed law would interfere with the right of business owners to handle transgender restroom issues without government intrusion. Conflict about usage of separate locker rooms, dormitory facilities and bathrooms is increasing and the bill would add to the chaos, he said.
Testimony in support of the bill by the Rev. Kent Little, lead pastor of College Hill United Methodist Church in Wichita, focused on the notion that Kansans ought not be denied rights, privileges and access. Expanding the state’s discrimination law would adhere to the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
“Such addition speaks to who we should be as a nation and who we should be as a state,” the minister said. “It is the right thing to do, and raises us up to the best of what we stand for and who we are called to be.”
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansans, said the bill wouldn’t impose quotas or mandates that benefits must be offered and the legislation specifically exempted private, fraternal and religious organizations.
Religious freedom justifiably has robust protection in Kansas law, Witt said, and state-sanctioned discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity should be viewed as repugnant.
“There are currently 26 states, plus Washington, D.C., that have some level of protection against discrimination based on sexual orientation,” Witt said. “Well over 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies ban discrimination against their LGBT employees.”