After about an hour of discussion and listening to public comment — nearly all of which was supportive — the Lenexa city council on Tuesday unanimously approved a nondiscrimination ordinance that provides legal protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
The council also adopted a hate crime ordinance and approved adding protections for sexual orientation and gender identity in contract work. About half a dozen residents, state legislators Brandon Woodard and Susan Ruiz, and members of Equality Kansas voiced support for passage of an NDO in Lenexa in comments before the council.
Several councilmembers and Mayor Michael Boehm shared their disappointment that legislature hadn’t passed a law providing the protections at the state level. Boehm urged Woodard and Ruiz to keep pressing the issue in the Kansas House of Representatives.
Councilmember Tom Nolte, who noted his neutral position historically on the matter, said that after learning more about the issue, he came to realize the need to take a stand on the issue in support of protections for the LGBTQ+ community.
“I’m sorry that we have to legislate this,” Nolte said. “I’ve changed my initial attitude, which was neither support nor denial, trying to understand if there is a problem and just how to define it. It’s interesting we’re participating at a civil level. I think that eventually the state will come around.”
Councilmember Joe Karlin stressed the need to support people at risk of suicide, citing the high risk of suicide in the LGBTQ+ community. He lost his son, Tom, eight years ago to suicide.
“I dream of a day when we don’t need something like this, that we look at people for not whether they’re black, white, gay or straight,” Karlin said. “Unfortunately we’re not there yet, so in the meantime we do things like the NDO.”
Councilmember Steve Lemons, who is also a local deacon, said he heard a few concerns from residents about religious freedoms. He said that in cases of truly held convictions of religious beliefs, that the city can be mindful of that. However, he did not want religion being used as a reason to deny access to housing, public accommodations and the like.
Lenexa resident Karen McHenry shared her support for the NDO, adding that it would provide protections for people like her son, a gay man who has told her he does not always feel safe and welcomed in Kansas.
“I just feel like this is something that is very important for everyone to make it be a place where my son feels welcoming and loved because as a mother, you care very much for your son,” McHenry said. “I was shocked when I found out that my son doesn’t have the same rights or privileges or protections. I thought everyone was going to be treated equally. I just want to really encourage you all to vote for this because it means a lot to me.”
One Lenexa resident, Michael Kerner, who ran as a Libertarian for the state legislature last year, spoke against passage of the NDO, saying the city should learn from the mistakes of federal and state lawmakers across the country and not repeat them. He brought up the cake baker case in Colorado as an example of expensive litigation.
“I think it’s a violation of the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act,” Kerner said. “You’re basically telling the baker who doesn’t want to bake that cake…because it violates their religious beliefs, ‘No, you must do it or you will be punished.’ That’s not something you play games with.”
Highlights of the NDO in Lenexa
Earlier this year, the city took a “wait and see” approach to the issue and adopted a resolution showing support for LGBTQ+ protections at the state and federal level. After an executive session in August to review legal matters related to such ordinances, though, the mayor directed city staff to draft the nondiscrimination ordinance for review.
Lenexa’s NDO expands prohibited discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations to include sexual orientation and gender identity. Here a few elements of the ordinance, which city staff have said is “very similar” to ordinances passed in Shawnee, Roeland Park and Leawood:
- Religious organizations and nonprofit fraternal or social associations/corporations are exempt
- The ordinance contains a declaration of purpose that everyone has a right to be free from all forms of discrimination on the basis of any classifications protected by federal, state or local laws
- The ordinance applies to employers with four or more employees
- The ordinance prohibits discrimination in the sale or lease of real property, in the case of five or more dwelling units
- The ordinance does not prohibit or require any action in violation of an individual’s rights protected by the Kansas Preservation of Religious Freedom Act,
- The ordinance does not prohibit an employer or place of public accommodation to post signs on restrooms or dressing rooms based on gender
- The ordinance lays out a process to investigate complaints. The cost of mediation would be shared equally by the aggrieved individual and the respondent. If a hearing officer finds a violation, then the officer may assess a civil penalty against the respondent to be paid to the city