February 24, 2024

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Wichita non-discrimination ordinance causes concern

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A divided Wichita City Council preliminarily adopted a non-discrimination ordinance earlier this week. The council takes a final vote next week. The ordinance prohibits discrimination based on age, race, ethnicity, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation in housing, employment, and public accommodations.

In a lengthy meeting on Tuesday, more than 35 people asked the council to reject the ordinance that creates filing and adjudication procedures for discrimination complaints. Several argued that federal and state law already prohibits discrimination against protected classes. Kansas statute doesn’t include sexual orientation and gender identity (SOGI) as protected classes. However, an attorney for the council said the Kansas Human Rights Commission rules mandate the enforcement of SOGI complaints.

Opponents worry SOGI rule could destroy businesses

Wichita resident Cynthia Sheldon said the city needs to be aware of the consequences of embracing SOGI laws. In other entities, SOGI laws lead to business-destroying lawsuits. She mentioned Jack Phillips, a Colorado baker, who refused to craft a custom cake for a gay wedding. After a six-year legal battle, he won before the U.S. Supreme Court on a technicality in 2018. However, he’s back in court again for refusing to create a custom cake for a gender transition event.

“If people can sue based on a SOGI law, the cost and time involved in a suit destroy businesses,” Sheldon said. “Avoiding SOGI laws in the first place is the best way to protect people from having to be involved in lawsuits at all.”

The proposal creates its own processes for filing and adjudicating discrimination complaints. It includes a city discrimination compliance officer. It establishes an investigation process for complaints and lays out guidelines for mediation, including civil fines of up to $2,000 and education for offenders. Council didn’t talk about the potential cost of the new bureaucracy.

Sheldon called the proposed process, “lengthy and expensive.” 

“Do people of goodwill in the LGBTQ community really want to impose fines and educational requirements on people of goodwill who disagree with them?” She asked.

Non-discrimination ordinance creates additional layers of bureaucracy

Jennifer Baysinger, Wichita, said in a Facebook post that she is concerned with adding layers of bureaucracy. 

“Aren’t we already protected by current laws and the Constitution? Why the need for more government — discrimination compliance officers with the authority to fine citizens and businesses or at a minimum force them to spend money on mediation, lawyers, etc?” She asked. “As I read the ordinance, I’m truly concerned… There’s no way this can be acceptable to Wichitans as written.”

Rob Egan, Wichita, asked the council to support the measure, in part, because of the added layer of bureaucracy. As a gay and disabled man, he said state and federal bureaucracies made it difficult for him to defend himself and his rights.

“This isn’t creating any new policy in the sense that you’re not changing the law. You are simply creating an easier enforcement of the existing law for people who are discriminated against,” he said.

Measure pits LGBTQ rights against rights of religious individuals

Most of the measure’s vocal opponents worried the policy creates unnecessary friction between the LGTBQ community and local churches. More than 250 people gathered outside the council meeting protesting the ordinance. Officials allowed only a limited number inside.

The Wichita non-discrimination ordinance exempts churches and ministers, but local Pastor Rob Rotola told the council the people will challenge churches on the exemptions if the ordinance is passed.

“People will make claims. It will go to courts,” he said. “People challenge and it depends on what justices you get and how they see it.”

Wichita council member Jared Cerullo told Rotola he wasted the council’s time.

“Your church is still exempt,” Cerullo said. “You do not have to allow people of this into your church building. Churches, religious organizations, nonprofits are exempt from this ordinance so you’re free to continue your discrimination.”

The council forwarded the ordinance for final action in a 4-3 vote. However, council members expressed concerns that it was going too quickly. 

Councilmember Becky Tuttle said only one district advisory board of six reviewed the proposal prior to Tuesday’s vote and the community’s diversity and inclusion advisory board did not weigh in.

“I’m not sure seven people should be responsible for changing our judiciary system within our city, and that’s exactly what we’re doing with this,” she said.

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