Overland Park residents make case for non-discrimination ordinance, though legal staff raise questions about enforceability

Roxie Hammill - September 5, 2019 6:46 am

More than 50 people Wednesday presented heartfelt pleas to Overland Park leaders to approve an ordinance with legal protections from discrimination for the LGBTQ+ community, despite a grim assessment from the city’s legal department about its enforceability.

The crowd at the council’s community development committee discussion was largely in favor of passage of a non-discrimination ordinance, saying Overland Park should do what nine other Johnson County municipalities have already done.

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Committee chair Curt Skoog invited the public to discuss the issue as the city decides how to move forward. In February, the council passed a resolution in support of LGBTQ+ rights, but left it to state legislators to write a law granting legal protection. Since that has not happened, the council is revisiting the issue.

Several speakers last night told the committee Overland Park should step forward because the statehouse leadership is unlikely to make the necessary changes, and there have been issues in the area. One speaker told the committee she had experienced discrimination based on gender identity.

“I’ve been a victim of anti transgender discrimination right here in Overland Park,” said Una Nowling, an intersex and transgender woman who is president of the KKFI 90.1 board of directors. “I’ve been thrown out of a business, I’ve been refused service, I’ve had hate speech used against me by staff and local business…Yes it is happening and no we can’t delay on this.”

Numerous speakers asked the city to adopt an ordinance, saying it’s the right thing to do and it would send a message to lawmakers.

“This is a local issue. Throwing up your hands and saying that this is something that can only be done at the state or federal level does not absolve you from responsibility,” said Taryn Jones. File photo from city council candidate forum.

“This is a local issue. Throwing up your hands and saying that this is something that can only be done at the state or federal level does not absolve you from responsibility,” said Taryn Jones, a gay woman who was among the candidates in the primary field for a Ward 1 seat on the city council.

State Rep. Jared Ousley, one of several legislators who attended the meeting, said having cities pass ordinances would help the argument at the state level.

However, Overland Park legal staff told the committee they had concerns about the enforceability of such city level measures. The Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act severely limits enforcement of non-discrimination laws if a person cites religious beliefs, said Michael Koss, senior assistant city attorney. The city’s legal staff has asked for an attorney general’s opinion on how to enforce such ordinances.

Some of the speakers pushed back on that point, saying that a city ordinance has at least some chance at being enforced, while the resolution already on the books remains just a resolution.

Other speakers invoked the goals of Forward OP that stressed making the city a welcoming place for all people. “It is impossible to feel welcome in a place where you can be denied housing because of who you love,” said Melissa Cheatham. “Quite frankly I think that having to endure hours of public debate about whether or not you are entitled to full human and civil rights probably doesn’t feel very welcoming.”

Still others said the lack of ongoing legal protection would cost Overland Park talented young workers who want to live in a diverse place.

Beatrice Turley, a sophomore at Shawnee Mission West, said she wants to live in a place where the law protects her. “A non-discrimination ordinance is a very simple way to invite people different from you and make Overland Park an even better community to be a part of.”

Hope Fritton, a sophomore at Shawnee Mission South, said, “This ordinance is our opportunity to be neighbors and to make our city a place that is a little (more) free of hate.”

Jacob Moyer, a student at Johnson County Community College, remembered asking his high school teacher at Shawnee Mission North about the safety pin she was wearing. She told him it was because she was a safe person to talk to if he was bullied or had other issues, he said. Then one day, she told him she couldn’t wear it anymore because she’d risk being fired.

“She’s not even gay but she could still be fired for supporting LGBTQ rights, which tells you that this is an important ordinance to pass,” Moyer said.

Only four people spoke against the ordinance. Some said they didn’t want to rush into a law that would be complex and difficult to enforce.

“The definitions of sexual orientation and gender identity are so spread out and so different and so rapidly changing that just from a bystander’s perspective how in the world is someone supposed to keep up with that,” said Kathy Laverick. She also said she thought normalizing transgender issues would be detrimental to children.

Patricia Brown was concerned that the city continues to respect the rights of those with religious convictions. “I’m concerned that an ordinance that would promote the rights of one would then violate the rights of the other,” she said.

The discussion lasted about two and a half hours. Skoog said he will discuss with Mayor Carl Gerlach how to proceed.

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