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Kansas cities push back against House bill nullifying local anti-discrimination ordinances

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Rep. Penn’s bill would take aim at LGBTQ policies, delete protection of veterans

TOPEKA — Wichita City Council member Brandon Johnson said the Kansas Legislature had no business undermining cities and counties working to amplify laws aimed at reducing discrimination based on race, disability, gender and national origin in housing, employment or public accommodations.

Johnson added his voice to a chorus opposed to one section of a House bill introduced by Rep. Patrick Penn striking down local government measures against discrimination and forbidding local units of government from adopting restraints on discrimination beyond state or federal law. The bill was described by opponents as a response to local government creation of anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ individuals related to gender identity and sexual orientation.

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“This is an offense to local control and the current practice that allows municipalities, towns and counties to be more restrictive than state statute but not less restrictive,” Johnson said. “Any governing body that seeks to put in efforts to reduce discrimination is doing the right thing and sending a message that discrimination has no place in Kansas.”

The bill would declare the supremacy of state and federal law on discrimination when in conflict with local government policy. That philosophy would appear contrary to objectives of a bill introduced by Sen. Chase Blasi, R-Wichita, to grant cities and counties power to enact abortion regulations more strict than existed under state law.

Penn, a Wichita Republican, embedded this state usurption of local government control into a bill that otherwise would make it easier to remove discriminatory covenants on deeds, plats, declarations and conveyances filed at county register of deeds offices.

Such covenants were no longer enforceable due to legislative and judicial actions of the past half century, but Kansas law allowed only homeowner associations to initiate removal of covenants prohibiting property ownership by Black people, Jewish people and others. The bill would permit covenants to be released by owners of real property and create a process whereby municipalities could delete discriminatory language from property documents.

Penn addressed the House Local Government Committee during the Wednesday hearing on House Bill 2376. He also spoke Tuesday about his attempt to repeal local government authority during remarks to people gathered in the Capitol rotunda for Black Legislative Day.

“There are a number of different localities, to include Wichita, that instituted something called the ‘nondiscrimination ordinance.’ Right? And, it was not done the correct way and it was forced through and it targeted many of the other communities on the other side of that law,” Penn said.

Passage of the bill by the Legislature, if signed by Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly, would forbid cities and counties from implementing or enforcing anti-discrimination regulations, resolutions or ordinances not mirrored in state law. The House committee took no action on Penn’s bill, but the concept could be amended into a wide range of bills later in the session.

In addition to silencing local sentiment on discrimination tied to sexual orientation and gender identity, the bill would apparently repeal local government protection of military veterans not recognized in state law.

Solana Flora, mayor of Mission in Johnson County, said the House bill would gut action by local government to counter discrimination. She said Section 2 of the bill was an “affront to local control more broadly and an example of the Kansas Legislature’s attempts this session to undermine and attack LGBT+ rights.” She said the bill pitted Black and Jewish rights against LGBTQ rights in a manner “unnecessary and unjustified,” she said.

“It is disingenuous that this bill concealed the non-discrimination ordinance prohibition and repeal within what purports to be pro-civil rights legislation. Such subterfuge breeds cynicism in government and undermines voter trust to the detriment of both state and local government,” Flora said.

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Stacey Knoell, executive director of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission, said it would be a mistake to preempt local control to dismantle protections from discrimination.

“The only parties protected or helped would be those who seek to discriminate against another group,” Knoell said.

Equality Kansas lobbyist Taryn Jones said advocates of the bill’s Section 2 “seem to to be saying, ‘We’ll give you what you want, but only if you allow us to discriminate against a vulnerable population.’”

Representatives of the Kansas Association of Counties, Kansas Association of Realtors and the Unified Government of Wyandotte County and Kansas City endorsed the House bill without referencing Section 2.

Spencer Duncan, who lobbies for the Kansas League of Municipalities, lauded the attempt to get rid of unlawful covenants in violation of the Kansas Act Against Discrimination. He asked the committee to delete Section 2 so the bill focused on discriminatory covenants rather than non-discrimination work of local government. “With the removal of Section 2, the league would support this legislation,” Duncan said.

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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