Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback Revokes LGBT Workplace Protections for State Employees

Human Rights

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback—an evangelical Christian who converted to Catholicism—is the latest right-wing Republican with a national reputation acting out this week to enforce discriminatory laws against LGBT people—in a desperate but despicable abuse of power.

On Tuesday, Brownback issued executive orders abolishing nine state task forces that oversaw a range of social, educational and environmental programs created by former Kansas Democratic governor, Kathleen Sebelius. But he also revoked Sebelius’ 2007 executive order that extended employment discrimination protections to LGBT people who are state employees. Sebelius told state agencies to create workplace policies to prevent harassment against LGBT employees.

“This Executive Order ensures that state employees enjoy the same civil rights as all Kansans without creating additional ‘protected classes’ as the previous order did,” Brownback said. “Any such expansion of ‘protected classes’ should be done by the legislature and not through unilateral action. The order also reaffirms our commitment to hiring, mentoring and recognizing veterans and individuals with disabilities.”

What makes Brownback’s statement so pernicious—if not Orwellian—is that Kansas has intentionally not included LGBT discrimination in its civil rights laws for decades. In other words, with rare exceptions such as Sebelius’ executive actions for state employees—Kansas law has intentionally left LGBT individuals as an unprotected class, where there is no legal recourse for getting fired or treated as a second-class citizen in the workplace.

The ongoing litigation for same-sex equality in Kansas concerns marriage licenses and income tax status, however there are hundreds of areas of state law where LGBT people are treated unequally, usually by intentional omission. For example, there is no way for a LGBT couple married in another state to get a drivers’ license with the same last name. There are similar barriers with adoption, housing, medical power of attorney and many other areas affecting daily life.

What Brownback is doing is not unlike the protests this week by Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who told judges in his state to ignore the U.S. Supreme Court’s order to issue marriage license to LGBT couples. It is also similar to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas’s comments in the ruling that told Alabama to issue the marriage licenses, where Thomas said the high court should respect states’ rights to not recognize same-sex marriage until the Supreme Court decides the issue.

But Brownback’s actions are more akin to Germany in the early 1930s, where the ruling National Socialists meticulously revoked the civil rights of various minority groups, most notably Jews. Make no mistake Brownback is rolling back civil right protections for LGBT Kansans.

“This action by the governor is an outrage,” Tom Witt, Kansas Equality’s executive director, told local newspapers. “Gay, lesbian, and transgender state employees across Kansas have trusted they would be safe from discrimination and harassment in their workplace, but Sam Brownback has, by erasing their job protections, declared ‘open season’ on every one of them.”

Witt is not exaggerating. When reporting for AlterNet last fall on the Kansas equality struggle, several of people who put their names on one state lawsuit challenging the state’s discriminatory tax code—which does not recognize LGBT couples—said they felt they could join this legal fight because they were state employees who were protected against retaliation or losing their jobs.

On Tuesday, Brownback took away that protection. It may be that his moves, like the pronouncements by Moore and Thomas, are last-gasp efforts in the face of a cultural tidal wave that is bringing equality to all 50 states. But when reactionaries like these go down fighting, there can be collateral damage—individuals whose lives can be unnecessarily disrupted and hurt.

For more on this important story, read AlterNet's  two-part series on the Kansas Equality movement.  Part I traces the history of LGBT discrimination in the state.Part II tells the stories of several LGBT Kansans who have persevered despite living in a state where social conservatives still demonize them.The series was supported by the American Independent Institute.

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