Shawnee becomes largest city in Johnson County to pass nondiscrimination ordinance with protections for LGBTQ+ individuals

Council president Stephanie Meyer worked with councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell to get the NDO before the governing body for consideration in Shawnee.

After more than four hours of public comment and council discussion, the Shawnee city council on Monday voted 5-2 to adopt a nondiscrimination ordinance that provides legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Councilmembers Eric Jenkins and Mike Kemmling cast the dissenting votes.

Residents both for and against an NDO filled the Shawnee council chambers Monday night.

With the vote, Shawnee, which has a population of 65,000, becomes the largest city in Johnson County to have adopted an NDO. Leawood, with a population of 35,000, had been the largest when it passed an NDO earlier this month.

The vote in Shawnee came two weeks after another marathon meeting, during which council heard hours worth of arguments for and against the proposal. Again on Monday, dozens of residents spoke about the issue, with a slight majority of the roughly 50 speakers voicing opposition to adopting the measure.

Councilmember Lisa Larson-Bunnell, who with Council President Stephanie Meyer had worked to get the nondiscrimination ordinance in front of the governing body for consideration, said she was “so proud” of the city and council in representing all residents and ensuring that Shawnee is a “welcoming, accessible place.”

“I’m very proud of how deliberative we were in our approach to consider the nondiscrimination ordinance and to getting it passed,” Larson-Bunnell said. “We understand Shawnee. We do listen to our constituents, and this is something that people wanted. I understand that there are people that disagree, and we worked very hard to narrowly tailor our ordinance so that we didn’t infringe on people’s religious liberties. It is all about balance.”

Meyer agreed.

“I’m super proud to be a resident of Shawnee tonight,” she said. “I think this has been another really healthy, productive civil conversation and I’m really glad and feel blessed to be a part of it.”

Jenkins, however, said he thinks the Shawnee city council made the wrong decision. In comments before the vote, Jenkins noted that he has a brother and a son who are gay, and that he consequently has a good deal of empathy for members of the LGBTQ+ community. But, he said, the city is simply not the ideal jurisdiction for such a law.

“I respect my fellow councilmen, their decision was to go forward with this,” Jenkins said. “I gave a lot of reasons why I felt like it wasn’t appropriate to go forward, most of those being that I do not think this is a local city issue. It’s not something that we should be handling as podunk councilmen down here. It’s a constitutional issue. Rights are given by constitutions, not by ordinances at city level.”

Mayor Michelle Distler thanked city staff for their work on the NDO.

Though as mayor she did not vote on the measure, Michelle Distler thanked city staff for their work on the ordinance.

“While I think almost everyone in this room would rather have the greater protection at the higher level, I cannot commend our staff enough,” Distler said. “I am so proud of what we have come up with that I feel does offer some legitimate protection because that’s been part of my biggest fear with doing it at the local level. With that, I didn’t want to be giving a false sense of protection. I am incredibly proud of what we came up with.”

Proponents and opponents respond to council vote

Shawnee resident Ryan Wesley spoke in favor of the NDO.

Shawnee resident Ryan Wesley, a gay man, said he was “very excited” the Shawnee city council passed the NDO.

“I think it’s time,” Wesley said. “I think Shawnee is forward-thinking and I feel this was about equality and not religion. This was about basic civil rights, and Shawnee showed up and Shawnee passed it.”

Jacob Moyer, a local LGBTQ rights activist, echoed those sentiments, saying he was “overjoyed” with the council decision.

“I will sleep so much better tonight,” Moyer said. “This is, I think, a historic vote because it is the second of the five largest cities in Johnson County to pass this ordinance. I think that the more people feel safe and open to talk about this because Shawnee is a safer place, the more people who don’t know much about the LGBTQ community are going to be able to learn about them, and that will lead to a healthier community that is less homophobic and less transphobic and more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community in general.”

Shawnee resident Mike Thompson spoke against an NDO.

Others, however, were displeased with the outcome. Shawnee resident Mike Thompson, the longtime television meteorologist, said he was “disappointed” by the council decision.

“I felt like they dismissed the argument that it does usurp some religious rights of certain groups and ignore that aspect of it,” Thompson said, citing concern with an individual’s freedom of religion. “I think there’s a misunderstanding among many groups that we harbor resentment toward them. That’s not the case at all. It’s just protection of religious beliefs is very, very important.”

Many opponents of the NDO commented on religious freedoms during their remarks. Tony Gillette, a western Shawnee resident and chair of the Northwest Johnson County Republicans, represented a group of people who opposed the ordinance on Monday. In his presentation, he noted there had been a prayer vigil “for Religious Freedom in America and here in Shawnee” that took place Sunday evening outside of Shawnee City Hall.

Others focused on the venue for the law. Shawnee resident Ray Erlichman echoed Jenkins’ comments, saying he wished the council would let state and federal governments handle nondiscrimination issues.

“You cannot have a hodgepodge, a checkerboard, of laws within a county,” Erlichman said. “People that have businesses would not know how to operate from one city to the next. It’s unfair to them.”

Ordinance addresses employment, housing, access to accommodations and services

The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation in private and public employment practices, the sale or lease of real property, and public accommodations and services. City Attorney Ellis Rainey said the ordinance uses similar definitions for classes protected at the state level. In terms of employment, the ordinance applies to businesses with four or more employees.

Religious organizations, nonprofits and private groups are exempt from the ordinance.

The ordinance establishes a process to determine if discrimination, a civil violation, took place. A hearing officer may impose a civil penalty of $1,000 for each violation.

The council also voted 5-2 to update its fair housing policy to include protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. It also voted 5-2 its internal employment policy to include protections for several classes, including sexual orientation, gender identity, pregnancy, genetic information and familial status.

Councilmember Kemmling asked for clarity of exemptions in the ordinance, particularly for individuals with sincerely held religious beliefs. Rainey said the ordinance does not conflict with the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act.

Councilmember Mickey Sandifer was absent for both meetings.

In remarks Monday, Distler noted that work had been going on in the background to get the ordinance ready for consideration.

“I’ve heard several times now: People feel it was rushed because we had the committee meeting and then it came to this agenda on the council meeting,” Distler said. “But what people don’t know is this has been worked on over a year by our city staff as they have watched the Supreme Court cases and what other cities have done. Shawnee is not always the first one to do something because we want to make sure that we do things right.”

Differences between potential candidates in 2020 statehouse races

Though the vote took place at the city level, it appears to mark a point of differentiation among the potential candidates in at least one statehouse race on the horizon. State Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook was again among the speakers to voice opposition to the ordinance, saying that while every person “deserves to be respected, loved and cherished,” cities should not force people to “follow a specific ideology they do not agree with.”

“I urge this council, for the sake of justice, not to pass an ordinance that would allow individuals to accuse innocent citizens of bigotry and hatred, or to charge innocent citizens with punishments and fines,” she said in comments to the council.

Pilcher-Cook, a Republican who has represented Senate District 10 since 2009, has not filed for re-election yet. Another Republican, Rep. Tom Cox, has announced his plans to run for her seat, though, setting up a possible primary. Cox spoke in favor of passing the NDO at the meeting earlier this month.

And Councilmember Lindsey Constance, who has filed to run for the District 10 Senate seat as a Democrat, was a vocal supporter of the bill. After the vote, she said she is thankful for all of the residents’ comments and proud to be a representative of Shawnee.

“I’m proud to vote in favor of the ordinance and show that we’re a welcoming city for all,” Constance said.