Brownback rescinds protections for LGBT state employees

? Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday rescinded an executive order that had been in place since 2007 giving state employees protection from discrimination based on sexual orientation or sexual identity — a move described as outrageous and deplorable by civil rights activists.

In place of that order, Brownback issued another order that he said “reaffirms the commitment of the State of Kansas to employment practices which do not discriminate based on race, color, gender, religion, national origin, ancestry or age.”

The civil rights protection was one of nine executive orders originally signed by Govs. Kathleen Sebelius and Mark Parkinson that Brownback rescinded Tuesday. Most of those orders established boards and commissions that Brownback said no longer meet.

“This action by the governor is an outrage,” said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, a gay rights and civil rights organization based in Wichita. “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.”

Brownback’s press secretary, Eileen Hawley, said that when Sebelius signed the original order in 2007, she “unilaterally” established two additional classes of protected citizens. She said the governor’s order means state employees will only have the same protections that all other Kansas residents have.

“Any such expansion like that should be done by legislation,” Hawley said.

Asked if Brownback is proposing such legislation, Hawley said he is not.

News of Brownback’s action spread quickly, prompting reaction from the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest gay rights advocacy organization.

“This is a dramatic reversal for Kansas,” said Marty Rouse, national field director for the group. “For eight years, LGBT state employees have been guaranteed nondiscrimination protections and in one foul, reckless and shameful decision, Governor Brownback has taken the state backward. His deplorable behavior is a direct assault on fairness and equality in the state.”

Doug Bonney, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said the practical effect of Brownback’s action is that gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender state employees can now be fired just for that reason.

“Unless you’re protected by a union or some collective bargaining contract that has a ‘just cause’ provision,” Bonney said.

“I think it’s a damn shame,” Bonney said. “It’s going backwards. The arc of history was toward greater protection.”

Within moments of the governor’s announcement, Rep. John Carmichael, D-Wichita, asked to introduce a bill in the House Judiciary Committee that would put employment protection for LGBT state workers into statute.

But Rep. Jan Pauls, R-Hutchinson, who opposes extending that protection, said she does not think rescinding the employment protection order puts LGBT state workers at risk.

“I would be surprised if anyone would get fired,” she said. “Through the years when we’ve had different hearings on those issues, it’s always been discussed in terms of (how) we expect employers in Kansas are fair with their employees, and if people are doing the job, we don’t see that they should be terminated.”

Pauls, a conservative who changed her party affiliation to become a Republican last year, was one of the leading supporters of the state’s 2005 constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. She said Tuesday that she thought Gov. Sebelius’ original order in 2007 went too far.

“My concern has always been that we protect certain groups in Kansas from discrimination, and if someone’s not in that group under our state law, I didn’t think they should be included in an executive order.”

But Bonney of the ACLU said it is often the case that expansions of employment protections begin at the executive level, then are later ratified by a legislative body. He cited President Harry Truman’s desegregation of the military as one early example.

“Usually it doesn’t go backwards, but this is a step backwards,” Bonney said.