A trip to Washington, D.C., last week made local pastor Josh Longbottom part of history.
Tuesday on Capitol Hill, he and 250 other clergy members from all 50 states gathered to encourage Congress to include gays as a protected class in hate crime legislation and to make it a federal crime to terminate a person's employment based on sexual orientation.
"There hasn't been this kind of gathering of clergy to show our support for the right of people of various sexual orientations," said Longbottom, an associate pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, 925 Vt. "It's been a long time waiting to happen. For so long, it's been that clergy has been against gayness."
The Matthew Shepard Act
That same day, the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism and Homeland Security began hearings on what's been called the Matthew Shepard Act.
Named for a University of Wyoming student who was beaten and killed because of his sexuality in 1998, the bill would include sexual orientation, gender and gender identity in federal hate crime laws.
Currently, race, religion and national origin are protected classes under federal hate crime laws, which can increase criminal sentences in crimes where a victim was singled out for being a member of a protected class.
Similar measures have been defeated in Congress in the past, but Longbottom thinks this year could be the year the bill has a chance of making it to the president's desk.
"That's hard to measure. With Kansas, it's pretty clear who's on what side," Longbottom said. "But I think it makes a real difference ... that this level of support was shown. I think this is a big year for it given the last election results."
As the sole clergyman from Kansas, Longbottom met with Rep. Dennis Moore, and with representatives from the offices of Rep. Nancy Boyda and Sens. Pat Roberts and Sam Brownback. Moore and Boyda's districts both include parts of Lawrence.
Longbottom said Moore seemed receptive to the legislation; the positions of the others were less clear.
Jason Fizell, district director for Boyda, told the Lawrence Journal-World that because the legislation was recently introduced, she had not yet formed a position on it.
Representatives from Brownback's and Roberts' offices were not immediately available for comment.
A trip to Capitol Hill
Longbottom got interested in making the trip to Capitol Hill when he was contacted by the Human Rights Campaign, a national group working for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender equality, as it started organizing Tuesday's rally.
Peter Luckey, senior pastor at Plymouth Congregational Church, said it was an easy decision to let Longbottom make the trip not only for the cause of supporting gay rights but also because the rally showed there are many Christian churches supporting those rights, contrary to some stereotypes.
"I think it's historic because I think, unfortunately, a lot of clergy that have been grabbing the headlines have been clergy that have not been part of welcoming gays and lesbians," Luckey said. "Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, they're the ones that tend to be in the news and I think it's important for there to be a balance."
Hate crime law in Kansas
Under Kansas law, unlike federal law, criminals who single out gays as victims, as well as other protected classes, are liable to face enhanced sentences.
But Tom Witt, chairman of the Kansas Equality Coalition, said the hate crime statute tends to be ignored by judges.
"I'll be frank: It doesn't get used," Witt said. "It's just being ignored. To the best of our knowledge, not just for sexual orientation but for most all hate crimes, very rarely does it get used in the state."
Gays also are not protected under Kansas employment laws.
That fact surprises most people in Kansas, according to Maggie Childs, chairwoman of the Lawrence chapter of the Kansas Equality Coalition.
"There are a lot of people who think it's illegal to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation," Childs said. "But it's legal in some places to discriminate that way."
A bill to include sexual orientation in the Kansas anti-discrimination laws was introduced to the state Legislature this year. But Senate Bill 163 died after a hearing in the Senate Federal and State Affairs Committee in January.
Lawrence is one place in Kansas where discrimination based on sexual orientation is prohibited.
Trying to make a difference
Longbottom acknowledged that gay rights hadn't been at the forefront of his mind before his trip to Washington, but now it's an issue he'll watch closely.
"It was fantastic. I thought, first off, it was so well organized and it was an issue of importance in our times," he said. "I felt like we made a difference and I felt really happy for the (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community that progressive clergy had finally showed our stance in support of them.
"I'm really happy this showed the diversity of Christianity."