Sunday, June 30, 2013

Advocates for gay rights still face long road to marriage equality in Kansas

By SCOTT ROTHSCHILD, The Lawrence Journal-World

TOPEKA, Kan. ---- Don Haider-Markel, chairman of the political science department at Kansas University, said the issue of gay rights and same-sex marriage sometimes comes up when interviewing candidates for jobs at KU.

He said both gay and straight candidates raise concerns about whether they will feel comfortable in a state that has a statute and constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

"It is definitely a stumbling block," said Haider-Markel, whose work has focused on sexual orientation in the political system.

Advocates for gay rights say those kinds of concerns may be raised even more often after last week's Supreme Court rulings that favored gay rights.

Now there are 13 states and the District of Columbia, making up a third of the country's population, that allow gay marriage. That number may increase in the next year or so as gay rights groups seek legislative or ballot campaigns in states like Illinois, New Jersey and Nevada, and others.

In Kansas, however, advocates for gay rights say they have a long and probably litigious road ahead of them.

Eight-year-old amendment unaffected in Kansas

The court ruled that same-sex couples married in states where gay marriage is recognized are entitled to the same federal benefits and programs as opposite-sex married couples. In another case, the court essentially allowed same-sex marriage in the nation's most populous state, California.

The court's ruling on DOMA leaves unanswered numerous questions that will probably require more lawsuits, said Tom Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition.

For example, will the IRS for tax purposes recognize same-sex marriages if the couple has moved to a state that doesn't allow same-sex marriage, Witt asked.

"It will take some time to sort this out," he said.

Even Gov. Sam Brownback, who as a U.S. senator voted for DOMA, declined to comment on the decision, saying that he was still reviewing it. "Before I get out there on some statement I'd want lawyers flyspecking it," he said.

Repealing the 2005 state constitutional amendment that allows only marriage between a man and a woman seems nearly impossible at this time. The amendment also declares only opposite-sex unions are entitled to the "rights and incidents" of marriage.

It passed with nearly 70 percent of the vote, and to have a re-vote on the measure would first require two-thirds majorities in the House and Senate, which has become even more conservative since 2005.

Haider-Markel said he is not aware of any polling that has been done to gauge Kansans' opinions on gay rights, but he suspected the ban on same-sex constitutional amendment would pass again today.

But Witt said if put to another vote in Kansas, it would be closer. "And it's not just because of the national mood," he said. "People don't like watching their grandkids, cousins and friends targeted by the radical right. And we are a lot more organized," he said.

Opponent of same-sex marriage sees changes in Kansans' attitudes

The Rev. Terry Fox, founding pastor of Summit Church in Wichita, who was instrumental in getting the same-sex marriage ban amendment approved in Kansas, agrees that today the vote would be closer, but says the outcome would be the same.

Like elsewhere, Fox said, gay marriage is becoming more accepted in Kansas.

"That is due to the media, Hollywood, and frankly the third reason is the homosexual community has been much more motivated than the non-homosexual community," Fox said.

Fox also said that there aren't as many platforms as before "for those who think homosexuality is a perversion and sinful. You're not going to hear that at KU, or K-State or Wichita State," he said.

Fox was disappointed in the court rulings, but said his major problem with them is that courts, rather than the people, are deciding what is moral. He said that should be upsetting to both sides of the issue.

Fox said it is possible that some time in the future Kansans will vote to repeal the constitutional ban.

Witt said he would like to see that day but conceded, "Politics is the art of understanding what's possible."

He said supporters of gay rights in Kansas will push for incremental changes aimed at making it illegal to discriminate against gays, lesbians, bisexual and transgender persons in the workplace and housing, and increasing anti-bullying efforts in schools.

For example, efforts are under way in Topeka to put together an ordinance that bans discrimination based on sexual orientation.

"Wherever the community is ready to grant LGBT people some semblance of equality under the law, we're going to ask the community to put itself on the record," he said.