Kansas will no longer ban discrimination against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and the transgendered in hiring and employment in much of state government because of an action announced Tuesday by Republican Gov. Sam Brownback.
Brownback rescinded an executive order issued in August 2007 by then-Gov. Kathleen Sebelius barring discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. The order applied to hiring and employment decisions by agencies under the governor's direct control and required them to create anti-harassment policies as well.
Brownback said Sebelius — a Democrat who went on to serve as President Barack Obama's health secretary — acted "unilaterally" with her order and that any such changes should be made by the state Legislature. But Brownback, who became governor a little more than four years ago, didn't say why he waited until now to rescind her directive.
The national gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign condemned Brownback's action as "foul, reckless, and shameful."
Brownback, who won a tough re-election race in November, acted less than three months after the federal courts cleared the way for gay marriage in parts of the state. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide this summer whether all states must allow such marriages, and Brownback's move came as social conservatives in other states have sought to respond to the legalization of gay marriages and other gains made by gay-rights advocates.
Brownback, a vocal defender of a ban in the state constitution on same-sex marriage, issued a new order reaffirming the state's commitment to prohibit discrimination based on race, color, ethnicity, national origin, gender or religion.
"This executive order ensures that state employees enjoy the same civil rights as all Kansans without creating additional 'protected classes' as the previous order did," Brownback said in a brief statement. "Any such expansion of 'protected classes' should be done by the Legislature and not through unilateral action."
A Kansas law that prohibits discrimination in housing or private hiring and employment does not cover bias based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Such an expansion is unlikely from the Republican-dominated Legislature, though Democratic state Rep. John Carmichael, of Wichita, is pursuing it in response to Brownback's action.
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state's leading gay-rights group, said the jobs of hundreds of gay, lesbian and transgendered workers are now at risk, after they've spent nearly a decade believing they were safe on the job after disclosing their orientation or gender identity.
"It's an outrage — an absolute outrage," Witt said. "I can conceive of no justifiable reason for doing this."
Fred Sainz, a spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, said in an email that "Gov. Brownback will be remembered as being on the wrong side of history."
But Brownback's action drew praise from at least a few conservative Republican legislators. State Rep. Steve Brunk, a Wichita Republican, said Brownback simply "realigned" state government's policies with Kansas law.
And Rep. Jan Pauls, a Hutchinson Republican, questioned whether the change would actually affect state employees.
"I would be surprised if anyone would get fired," she said.
The Kansas action comes after the Arkansas Senate this week approved legislation to prohibit cities and counties from enacting ordinances against discrimination based on sexual orientation, which is not covered by state law.
In Indiana, Republican Gov. Mike Pence is backing a measure aimed at protecting people and companies from having to participate in same-sex weddings. A similar proposal failed last year in Kansas, with critics saying it would sanction widespread discrimination.