A bill proposed last week by a Republican Kansas lawmaker mirrors in its second part Democratic steps addressing the purging of illegal racist language from homeowners association and other housing documents.
But the bill also contains a section that opponents say would overturn ordinances passed in recent years by local governments across the state that prohibit discrimination and retaliation based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
“I would describe it as false,” said Michael Poppa, mayor of Roeland Park, Kansas, and executive director of the Mainstream Coalition. “It is a back door to taking away protections for a vulnerable community. It’s pretty much hidden away if you don’t know what you’re looking for.
“It will invalidate any current local anti-discrimination ordinances that protect the LGBTQ community and prohibit their adoption.”
About 20 Kansas municipalities have passed anti-discrimination ordinances, Poppa said, including Lawrence, Wichita, the Wyandotte County Unified Government and Kansas City, Kansas and all cities in northeast Johnson County. Roeland Park passed an ordinance in 2015, the first city in Johnson County to do so.
A hearing on the proposal, House Bill 2376, is scheduled for Wednesday on the House Committee on Local Government.
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Patrick Penn, a Wichita Republican, told the Kansas City Star that the measure “does the right thing” when it comes to addressing discrimination.
The bill brings Kansas in line with federal nondiscrimination law and “empowers local government to eradicate the scourge of discrimination against blacks in the form of discriminatory covenants,” he said. “In that same vein, it also leads to alignment and compliance, with a uniform standard throughout Kansas, anti-discrimination language as seen in … the Kansas Anti-Discrimination Act.”
But Thomas Alonzo, the president of Equality Kansas, saw the bill as an effort to “dismantle the freedoms we’ve” fought for. He said most large Kansas cities have anti-discrimination ordinances that extend to gender identity and sexual orientation.
If the bill passes, he said, businesses across the state will once again be free to discriminate against the LGBTQ community.
“I don’t want us to go back to where our people aren’t really able to participate or pursue life and happiness,” Alonzo said.
Part of Penn’s bill states that if a HOA, or homeowners association, is no longer in operation, a city or county can eliminate a racially restrictive covenant by drafting it from the plat description or the government document HOA. Under current law, that language, while unenforceable, can only be removed by a homeowners association, not a city or county.
But another section of the bill states that “no city or county shall adopt or enforce any ordinance, resolution or regulation relating to discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin or ancestry that is more restrictive than the provisions of the Kansas law against discrimination … or any other provision of law relating to such discrimination.
Rep. Emil Bergquist, chair of the local government committee, said he believes Penn’s bill more uniformly addresses issues of race compacts across the state.
The section on anti-discrimination ordinances, he said, had been “under discussion”.
“I think the intent was to make the laws uniform across the state,” said Bergquist, a Park City Republican.
Much of the language surrounding restrictive covenants is similar to bills introduced in January by Democratic Rep. Rui Xu of Westwood and Democratic Sen. Ethan Corson of Fairway. Xu’s bill did not have a scheduled hearing, and Corson’s bill was due to be debated last week in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee, but was overruled.
Sen. Mike Thompson, a Shawnee Republican and chairman of the committee, told the Star the committee “gets a lot of bills” and “had to change our schedule.” He said he didn’t know if the committee would go back on the bill.
Xu said he first heard of Penn’s measure on Friday.
“I am really disappointed that we have been given what explains a legislative delay in removing this discriminatory language (from property records) and we are complicating it by adding language that effectively caters to our LGBTQ community,” she said. “They are just injecting division into us for no reason.
“This is not a game I have any interest in playing: pitting our black and Jewish voters against our gay voters. This is not a scenario where one wins at the expense of the other.”
Xu said his bill is not controversial and has received widespread support.
“But now it seems like we have to scratch and scratch just to get back to the status quo, which continues to have these unenforceable racial covenants on the books,” she said.
Representative Linda Featherston, an Overland Park Democrat and a ranking minority member on the House Local Government Committee, called Penn’s bill “alarming.”
“Rep. Xu’s bill was definitely co-opted,” he said. “Our cities in Johnson County have worked hard to get those NDOs (non-discrimination ordinances) passed. community has been very active and to have the legislature try to override this is a clear violation of the home rule, which is guaranteed to us by our Constitution.
“It is shameful what has been done here.”
Racially restrictive covenants were routinely recorded in documents and deeds in the first half of the 20th century and placed in many house association records not only in the Kansas City area, but nationwide. The language was ruled unenforceable by the US Supreme Court in 1948 and later found illegal by the Fair Housing Act. But because of the way the records were filed, the restrictions were nearly impossible to lift.
A 2005 investigation by the Star found that more than 1,200 records covering thousands of homes in the Kansas City area still contained language that prohibited blacks, Jews, and members of other ethnic groups. Following the Star’s report, Missouri and Kansas passed laws requiring HOAs to lift restrictions without having to get homeowner approval.
But cities like Roeland Park have faced a challenge lifting restrictions, officials say, because the city no longer has active HOAs. That’s why they requested the accounts presented by Xu and Corson.
Jae Moyer, an LGBTQ activist from Kansas, said combining the two issues into one bill was a “dirty” tactic.
“As someone who is actually affected by one of these anti-discrimination ordinances — who lives in Overland Park, who has one — but also someone who championed those ideas when those discussions were being made locally, I think this is an absolute government overreach,” Moyer said. “I think it’s dirty that you almost try to plug this into the same bill — as in ‘Well, we can work with your racially restrictive stuff, but we’re going to get rid of your NDOs.'”
At first glance, Poppa said, Penn’s bill “seems very well intentioned — that it would eliminate these racially restrictive covenants.”
But in reality, he said, one part of the bill is designed to eliminate discrimination and the other part would allow for it.
“Once the committee hears what this bill actually does,” he said, “I really hope they will cancel this bill and deal with Rep. Xu’s bill, a bill that does not oppose equality of African Americans and Jewish Americans to equality for the LGBTQ+ community.”
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