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City in Kansas votes to outlaw discrimination against gays amid push to exempt churches

May 15, 2012: Hutchinson City Council member Bob Bush, center, speaks during a hearing on a new anti-discrimination ordinance in Hutchinson, Kan. (The Hutchinson News/Travis Morisse)

A city in Kansas, divided over a proposed ordinance that would bar organizations, including churches, from discriminating against same-sex couples, has backers saying gays deserve the protection as critics warn against the government going too far.

The Hutchinson City Council voted 3-2 to add sexual orientation to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance, which covers churches, as well as employers, restaurants and other local businesses.

However, the measure was scaled back in an effort to win enough votes for passage. The revisions to the ordinance will only prohibit firings or evictions based on their sexual orientation, while a provision was cut that also would have guaranteed access to public places, such as churches.

As it stands, churches that don't make their facilities available to the public would not be affected by the new measures, and it would not cover same-sex marriages, which are illegal in Kansas.

The Rev. Michael Herring, of First Presbyterian Church in Hutchinson, told FoxNews.com before the vote that he was divided on the ordinance, saying he believes that individuals should not be discriminated against, but worried the local government was overstepping its bounds.

“For the city or the state or anyone to say, ‘We’re going to force this upon you,’ then I think this becomes a bigger issue,” Herring said. “My question is where does this stop?”

The measure approved Tuesday directs the city attorney to draft an ordinance adding discrimination based on sexual orientation to the classes protected in housing and firing of employees, Meryl Dye, assistant to the city manager, told FoxNews.com. The City Council will vote on that amended ordinance in June or July.

The law's potential effect on churches is what that mattered most to local residents who attended the meeting and each were allowed to speak for two minutes prior to the vote.

“We want the same protections that everyone else has,” Jon Powell, chair of Hutchinson’s chapter of the Kansas Equality Coalition, said at the divided public meeting at Hutchinson’s Memorial Hall. “That’s it, no less.”

Other speakers who addressed the dozens in attendance prior to the vote urged council members to leave the non-discrimination policy unchanged.

Robert Wagler said he found the original measure to be “troublesome” because it opens a rift in the community.

“These laws force government to take sides in a profound moral debate,” Wagler said.

Prior to Tuesday’s vote, Thomas Witt, executive director of the Kansas Equality Coalition, told FoxNews.com he expected a “respectful” hearing on behalf of those who supported the change in the anti-discrimination code. He said the employment and housing protections were critical.

“What we’re trying to do is for people to keep their jobs if their employers find out if they’re gay or to stop them from getting evicted if their landlords find out they’re gay,” Witt said.

“We want the same protections that everyone else has. That’s it, no less.”

- Jon Powell, Kansas Equality Coalition

Witt dismissed concerns from critics that the measure would force churches in the city to rent facilities for gay weddings.

“Same-sex marriage is banned in the Kansas Constitution, so let’s clear that up right away,” he said. “You’re not going to see gay marriage in the anti-gay churches of Hutchinson, it’s a ludicrous notion. People are not bothering to educate themselves on what the law actually says or are outright lying.”

Sexual orientation, according to a fact sheet supplied by the Hutchinson Human Relations Committee, is defined as “actual, or perceived, male or female heterosexuality, homosexuality, or bisexuality by inclination, practice or expression.”

The change will add sexual orientation to an ordinance that already prohibits discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation, based on race, sex, familial status, disability, religion, age, color, national origin and ancestry.

On Monday, the City Commission in another Kansas municipality, Salina, gave first-round approval to a similar proposal. Commissioners will now hear a second reading during a meeting next week. Both opponents and proponents of the measure, however, have promised an appeal that could put the issue to a public vote, the Salina Journal reports.

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