By Christina Elias, KCUR 89.3
After several hours of public testimony and discussion lasting well past midnight on Tuesday, a Shawnee City Council committee voted to move ahead with an ordinance protecting residents from discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. City staff will now draft an ordinance to send to the full council for consideration.
Shawnee's move came a day after the Leawood City Council unanimously passed an ordinance protecting LGBTQ residents from discrimination.
With the Leawood ordinance’s passage, about 13% of Johnson County residents are covered by nondiscrimination ordinances. The passage of such an ordinance in Shawnee would bring that to more than 23%.
Leawood was the first of Johnson County's five largest cities to expand nondiscrimination protections to include sexual orientation and gender identity.
Leawood Mayor Peggy Dunn said she hasn't heard of widespread discrimination against LGBTQ individuals in the city. However, she said, "if anyone feels better about our community or having this passed, then we were happy to do so."
"I do think it will give some people a feeling of comfort and a feeling of greater acceptance within our region and our community," Dunn added.
The Leawood ordinance prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in employment, public accommodations and housing. Alleged violations would be investigated by the Leawood Police Department and pursued by the city prosecutor if investigators decide there is a case. A judge could order compensation and impose penalties of up to $1,000 on violators.
Patricia Bennett, the city attorney for Leawood, said the mayor and city council decided to take on the issue at goal setting session in January. Bennett said that because of concerns about a lack of state or federal protections against LGBTQ discrimination, the council set a nondiscrimination ordinance as one of its short-term goals for the year.
The other four largest cities in the county — Overland Park, Olathe, Shawnee and Lenexa — have hesitated to pass similar ordinances or taken less binding measures.
Overland Park and Lenexa have passed resolutions asking the state legislature to take up the issue, but have not acted at the city level. Olathe passed a proclamation discouraging discrimination, but not an ordinance that would offer formal legal protections.
Neighboring cities with nondiscrimination ordinances already on the books are Merriam, Mission, Mission Hills, Mission Woods, Prairie Village, Roeland Park and Westwood Hills.
Smaller cities in Johnson County that have not passed nondiscrimination ordinances concerning sexual orientation or gender identity are Bonner Springs, De Soto, Edgerton, Fairway, Gardner, Lake Quivira, Shawnee, Spring Hill and Westwood.
Letitia Harmon, policy director for the ACLU of Kansas, said her organization and Equality Kansas have been speaking with cities in Johnson County about passing local ordinances until the state takes action.
"We agree with them that the state should do something to address this, but the fact that they haven't begs the question: Why wouldn't you act on it as a city if you think this is actually an essential protection that needs to be put into place?" she said.
Dunn said there hasn't been any backlash against the ordinance so far, but attributed that to exemptions for religious organizations.
"If we had not included the religious exemption, I believe it would have been a different story," Dunn said.
Harmon said the ACLU "continues to defend everyone's right to practice their religion so far as it does not harm or interfere with the livelihood of any other person," and religious exemptions for nondiscrimination ordinances are not necessary.
"This is not a necessary expression of your faith and therefore there doesn't need to be any kind of religious exemption for this," she said. "We're talking about who someone is. And if you don't think someone should be able to discriminate against a person because they are a different race, or they are a different religion, then you should not be able to discriminate against them because they are a different gender identity or sexual orientation."
Harmon said that Leawood’s passage of a nondiscrimination ordinance that protects sexual orientation and gender identity is a sign to the rest of Johnson County.
"When the bigger cities start taking this on and indicating that a larger percentage of the population should be protected from discriminaton, that's an indication to the other cities, to the rest of Kansas, that this is something that's a priority for every single municipality," Harmon said.