TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) – Hundreds of people chanted and held signs Saturday at the Kansas Statehouse in a Valentine’s Day protest against Republican Gov. Sam Brownback’s decision to end legal protections against discrimination for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered workers in state government.
Gay rights advocates promised to push for an expansion of a Kansas law barring discrimination in housing, public accommodations and private employment to protect LGBT residents. They also called for renewed political activism against Brownback, who narrowly won a second, four-year term in November, and his conservative GOP allies.
The rally was prompted by Brownback’s decision this week to rescind a predecessor’s executive order prohibiting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity in hiring or employment decisions in much of state government. The earlier order was issued in August 2007 by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius — a Democrat who later served as President Barack Obama’s health secretary — and applied to agencies under the governor’s direct control.
Brownback acted less than three months after federal courts cleared the way for gay marriage in parts of the state, despite a ban on same-sex marriage in the Kansas Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this summer whether all states must allow same-sex marriages.
The rally drew about 600 people, and speakers accused Brownback of moving the state backward and showing disdain for gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered. One activist, Davis Hammett, a founder of the Equality House in Topeka, called Brownback’s move “a sick piece of policy.”
“I came to stand in solidarity with other gay and lesbian people in this state,” said Jake McMillian, a law student at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. “If you would have asked me a week ago if I ever thought in my wildest dreams that this would happen, I would have told you absolutely not.”
The state’s anti-discrimination law does not cover bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity — and such an expansion appears unlikely to win approval from the GOP-dominated Legislature. Brownback said Sebelius acted “unilaterally” in imposing such a policy in state government.
“If you’re going to do something like that, you need to engage the people’s elected representatives, which would be the Legislature,” Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said Saturday. “This is not something to be done unilaterally by executive fiat.”
Brownback issued his own, narrower executive order, reaffirming that the state wouldn’t discriminate in hiring and employment decisions based on race, ethnicity, national origin, religion or gender.
“Kansas state employees still enjoy all of the same civil rights afforded to every other Kansan,” Hawley said.
But Stephanie Mott, a transgendered Topeka resident and activist, told the crowd that Brownback’s action would encourage discrimination and even violence against LGBT state residents.
Yet, state Rep. John Carmichael, a Wichita Democrat who’s pushing for an expansion of the state’s anti-discrimination law, said the rally also was a warning to “bigots” in office that in the next election, “We’ll be coming for you.”
A chilly wind blew over the crowd, and the temperature dropped to near freezing. When Carmichael promised to read a speech of six or seven pages, someone in the audience interrupted him with, “It’s cold, man!”
“Oh, it’s not cold when you’re angry,” Carmichael shouted in response. “It’s not cold when the sun is shining bright, and it’s not cold when God is on your side.”