Wichita weighs nondiscrimination laws against religious liberty
So-called SOGI laws can carry hidden dangers for Christian business owners
Residents of Wichita, Kan., spent more than three hours on July 13 weighing in on whether the City Council should pass a nondiscrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes. The council members had voted to pass the ordinance a week earlier. But after hearing the feedback, including concern that the measure’s religious exemptions lacked clarity, the council voted 5-2 to postpone a final decision until Oct. 12.
Rachel Hornbaker and her 10-year-old daughter attended the council meeting and an earlier prayer meeting in front of City Hall. As a high school business teacher at a Christian school, Hornbaker is concerned about the environment her students will work in after they graduate.
“When you start saying that business owners who try to walk out their faith will be penalized if they act upon their personal convictions, I feel that that’s not in line with our Constitution, our Declaration, anything,” she said.
A nondiscrimination rule was at the center of Washington florist Barronelle Stutzman’s case before the Supreme Court after she declined to provide flowers for a same-sex wedding. She now faces fines after the justices declined to hear her appeal. Her battle reflects the increasingly common tension between religious liberty and laws that include sexual orientation and gender identity—commonly called SOGI ordinances.
State and local governments vary in their approach to nondiscrimination rules. About 20 states have SOGI laws, and some cities have passed local ordinances.
“But you see a slow march toward the number of them increasing and their scope increasing substantially,” said Jonathan Scruggs, senior counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom.
The laws often restrict the religious expression of creative professionals like Stutzman, particularly those in the wedding industry. The lawsuits against baker Jack Phillips, who declined to design a cake for a same-sex wedding and later a gender transition, relied on Colorado’s state nondiscrimination laws. (Unlike with Stutzman, the Supreme Court ultimately ruled in his favor.)
SOGI ordinances can restrict other professions, as well. Scruggs said they can limit how employers interact with their employees and clients and potentially force doctors to perform medical procedures they oppose. Some SOGI laws also affect nonprofits.
Walter Berry, CEO of Wichita-based Berry Companies Inc., explained one way these ordinances affect businesses. He told the City Council he has no problem hiring someone who identifies as LGBT who can do the job. But the company operates in dozens of markets, and things would get increasingly complicated if they all passed their own nondiscrimination rules. He said he wants to take care of his employees, but “I don’t need government intervention to tell me how I can be successful at that.”
At the close of the discussion, the Wichita mayor moved to pass the ordinance as written. Councilwoman Becky Tuttle responded with a motion to wait 90 days. Four other members, including the council’s only gay member and several others who voiced their support of the ordinance, agreed with the suggestion to wait to hear from more citizens before voting on the final wording.
Gary Carty, a pastor of Berean Baptist Church in Wichita who spoke at the meeting, said he plans to contact each council member between now and the Oct. 12 meeting and offer to pray and help gather resources for them.
“We allow minorities to have a say, to have their voice heard,” he said. “Personally, I feel like that Christianity and people who are truly trying to follow the principles and precepts that are in the Bible are rapidly becoming a minority.”
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