After vocal advocacy from residents for and against idea, Shawnee council directs city staff to draft non-discrimination ordinance

Opponents of the idea of an NDO wore stickers reading “Protect Religious Freedom” and “Protect Liberty.”

After a marathon meeting that saw more than 50 people speak and deliberations extend into the early morning hours, the Shawnee city council committee on Monday voted 5-2 to direct staff to draft a non-discrimination ordinance.

Councilmembers Eric Jenkins and Mike Kemmling voted against the motion. Councilmember Mickey Sandifer was absent.

The council chambers were full, with more than 50 people speaking on the topic.

The ordinance, which would provide legal protections for residents and employees based on sexual orientation and gender identity, would still need to come back to the council for a final vote before it could be formally adopted.

Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell and Council President Stephanie Meyer, who proposed discussion of the proposal, voiced their strong support for adopting a non-discrimination ordinance.

“I think most of us here tonight believe that this is an issue that is probably best handled by the state or federal government, but they have not acted and we cannot continue to wait while a portion of our residents do not have the same protections that all of us on the dais enjoy today,” Meyer said.

Councilmembers Matt Zimmerman, Jim Neighbor and Lindsey Constance also stressed their support for an NDO, echoing many of the sentiments brought up by previous speakers, especially in regard to issues of bullying and risk of suicide among LGBTQ youth and adults.

Jenkins argued that the issue should not be taken up by the city but instead be handled by the state and federal government. He later stated he saw no need for an NDO in Shawnee.

“It begs the question: Why the headlong rush into adopting an ordinance to solve a problem which does not exist?” Jenkins said, adding that he thinks an NDO would divide the community.

Councilman Eric Jenkins said he though an NDO would encroach on the religious liberty of Shawnee residents.

Jenkins stated concerns of encroachment on religious freedoms.

Kemmling and Larson-Bunnell tussled over evidence laid out in court cases related to claims of discrimination against LGBTQ individuals. Kemmling said he noticed inconsistencies and said religious freedoms weren’t given the same weight as arguments about LGBTQ rights.

An NDO would identify and prohibit discrimination in employment, public accommodations or services, and housing on the basis of a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity, according to a city memo.

“In addition, to avoid conflicts with the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act, the preferred practice is to exclude Religious Organizations and sincerely held religious belief or practices from the definition of any unlawful discriminatory practice,” according to the memo.

Included in prepared documents were draft revisions to the city’s equal employment and nondiscrimination policy, which indicate that, if approved in their own form, would add pregnancy, genetic information, familial status to the list of protected classes. The suggested civil penalty under this draft revision would be $500.

Arguments in support of an NDO

State Rep. Susan Ruiz, one of the first two openly gay members of the state legislature and a Shawnee resident, spoke in support of the NDO.

The evening’s discussions began with speakers stressing early on that dialogue must come out of love and respect for each other on both sides of the issue. As the night wore on, however, some speakers began to show frustrations with the arguments being made on both sides of the issue.

The vocal organized opposition to the idea of considering a non-discrimination ordinance that was on display Tuesday sets Shawnee apart from other cities that have considered such measures in recent months. In Leawood, for example, the council adopted a non-discrimination ordinance on Monday without a single resident or member of the governing body speaking against it.

There was wide support for the measure on display at the Shawnee meeting as well. Among the common themes that emerged during remarks from 30 people who spoke in support of a nondiscrimination ordinance were:

  • LGBTQ people can currently be denied housing or job opportunities for being who they are
  • Access to jobs should based on skill and access to housing should be based on ability to pay rent/mortgage, not a resident or employee’s sexual orientation or gender identity
  • An NDO would not grant “special rights” to LGBTQ individuals
  • An NDO provides protections for heterosexual individuals as well
  • Higher rates of mental health issues, depression and suicide occur in the LGBTQ community because LGBTQ individuals often do not accepted by society
  • State and federal government leaders have failed to take action on the issue
  • There would economic benefits if LGBTQ individuals decide to live and do business in Shawnee because they feel supported and protected by a city-level NDO
  • Religious freedom arguments have been used to justify racist policies in the past, but are no longer accepted

Recently arrived Shawnee resident Sandra Stenzel told the council that she once faced major pressure to leave a job in western Kansas for discussing her sexuality at work.

Rep. Tom Cox was among the people to speak in favor of the non-discrimination ordinance during Tuesday’s meeting.

“The next time someone tells you that that doesn’t really happen in real life, that people don’t really lose their jobs for being gay or lesbian — or simply talking about being gay or lesbian — I want you to remember my face, because it happened to me,” Stenzel told the council committee. “I moved here last week because I heard this was a really tolerant community and I heard it was a really wonderful, pro business, pro human being place to live. Please don’t disappoint me.”

State Representatives Susan Ruiz, a Democrat, and Tom Cox, a Republican, urged the council to move forward with adopting an NDO, citing the inability of the Kansas Legislature to bring a nondiscrimination bill up in committee. Ruiz and Rep. Brandon Woodward, who attended but didn’t speak, are the first two openly gay state representatives in Kansas.

Prairie Village resident Chris Reeves, a progressive activist who said he does a good deal of business in Shawnee, asked those with religious convictions to show tolerance for LGBTQ individuals, pointing to remarks from Pope Francis.

“I like the clients that I have here, and I’ve never once asked of them whether or not someone who works there is gay or straight; I’ve never asked whether or not they’re black or white; I have asked whether or not their check will clear,” Reeves said. “This is the difference between how we practice our faith. I believe that every person has a protected right to practice their faith as they believe and the government has no right to infringe on that. But our faith is not one to be used as a baseball bat against others.”

Arguments against an NDO

State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook

Opponents of the proposal came out in force as well, with many wearing stickers that said “Protect Religious Freedom” and “Protect Liberty.”

Among the common themes that emerged during remarks from the more than 20 people who spoke against the nondiscrimination ordinance were:

  • An NDO would infringe on the strongly held religious convictions of many Protestant Christians and Catholics
  • An NDO should be taken up by the state or federal government, not by the city
  • Business owners with religious convictions have fears that the government will force them to provide products and services for same-sex weddings (such as cakes, flowers, photography, venue, etc.)
  • A nondiscrimination ordinance grants “special protections” for LGBTQ individuals
  • Racism should not be compared with LGBTQ discrimination (a point raised by a person of color)
  • Potential costs incurred by city to investigate and enforce a nondiscrimination ordinance would pose a financial risk
  • There is no documented history here of people being fired or denied housing for being LGBTQ

Shawnee resident Angela Stiens she thought it was important for the city to let people live according to their beliefs.

“When I come up here as a citizen of Shawnee, those are convictions that I carry in my heart as well, and I would like those to be respected,” Stiens said. “I oppose this ordinance for the obvious: In our First Amendment, all of our religious freedoms are protected. And remember, disagreeing is not discrimination.”

State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook said that when cities pass nondiscrimination ordinances with protections for LGBTQ individuals, lawsuits will follow “violating people’s free exercise to their religion.”

State Rep. Owen Donohoe

“Protecting the free exercise of religion has been the bedrock of our communities, since the founding of our country,” Pilcher-Cook said. “Indeed, that is the very foundation that gives us the tolerance for different beliefs and which promotes more respectful, diverse and peaceful society.”

State Rep. Owen Donohoe, a Shawnee lawmaker who co-sponsored a bill in the 2019 Kansas legislative session that would define marriage as between a biological male and female, argued that Christians wouldn’t be able to exercise their religious beliefs under an NDO. He said he thought people should start adding a C to the term “LGBTQ” so that Christians would start being thought of as a protected class as well.