Gov. Laura Kelly signed an executive order Tuesday to restore protection for LGBT state employees and extended the decree to those who do business with the state.
The order shields workers from discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. A similar order was put in place by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius in 2007, then rescinded by Gov. Sam Brownback in 2015.
“As I have said numerous times before, discrimination of anyone has no place in Kansas and will not be tolerated in this administration," Kelly said. "We will ensure that state workers feel safe and supportive in their work environment.”
In a perfect world, she said, such orders wouldn't be necessary, but this isn't a perfect world. She said it would be "absolutely wonderful" if the Legislature were to place protections for public and private workers in state statute.
Rep. Susan Ruiz, D-Shawnee, and Rep. Brandon Woodard, D-Lenexa, who were elected in November as the state's first gay legislators, said they plan to introduce a bill that would add sexual orientation and gender identity to protected classes under state law.
“It’s so exciting to have a governor who is so supportive," Ruiz said. "Words are beyond me right now. It’s just very emotional.”
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, an LGBT advocacy group, said gay state employees weren't safe under Brownback. He said he personally knows of seven people who were let go in the months following the 2015 reversal.
“It’s as simple as can you put the picture of your spouse on your desk in your cubicle in your office," Witt said. "Under the previous administration, that would get somebody fired. Now, employees who work for the state of Kansas can be open and authentic about who they are, about who their families are and who their loved ones are, without fear of retribution.”
By extending protections to state contractors, Witt said, the administration is sending a message that Kansas is a place where fairness and equality are valued.
“If the state’s going to do business with somebody, if they’re going to take my tax dollars and other LGBT people’s tax dollars and spend them, then the state should be spending those tax dollars with companies that don’t engage in discrimination against their own employees," Witt said.
Last year, the Legislature passed a law that allows faith-based groups to decline adoption and foster care services to same-sex couples. Kelly, who voted against the bill as a state senator, said she hasn't had time to review her options regarding implementation of that law.
"If there’s anything I can do administratively and as the CEO of this state, I will do that to ensure they do not discriminate against anyone in the adoption process," Kelly said.
Ruiz and Woodard expressed hope that their presence would help lawmakers see LGBT issues in a different light.
“I think it’s a different perspective when they’re actually voting against the rights of two of their colleagues,” Woodard said.