by Melissa Brunner
Word from Topeka City Councilman Chad Manspeaker this week that will propose expanding the scope of the city's Human Relations Commission to include protections for people based on sexual orientation and gender identity might give some of you a sense of deja vu. Haven't we been down this road before? I took a journey back into our archives for a little history lesson on Topeka's recent past when it comes to anti-discrimination policies.
A major fight came in 2002. The council considered adding sexual orientation and gender identity to the city's anti-discrimination policy. Hundreds of people packed council chambers for the meeting which ended with the council first voting to remove sexual orientation and gender identity, then voting 7-2 to approve an ordinance with increased penalties for crimes against individuals ased on race and religion.
In 2004, the council approved not discriminating based on sexual orientation for city employment practices. The measure was challenged by petition and enough signatures were gathered to put the issue to a public vote. In the spring primary election, the ordinance was upheld. On a side note, however, weeks later, a statewide vote was held on a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. It was passed with 70 percent of the vote.
Some would say efforts to fight discrimination for any group took a hit in 2010. In a series of actions, the Human Relations Commission was disbanded as a city department dedicated to solving unfair housing and employment cases, and revamped as a volunteer commission. The move was made amid budget cuts, with the thought being the cases could be handled by the state's Human Relations Commission.
Councilman Manspeaker's proposal aims to bring the debate over discrimination and which groups should or should not be protected back to the forefront. We will be following where the talks lead this time around.
<i>Addendum:</i> Looking a little further back in our archives, I found a couple footnotes. Back in 1998, the council also considered an attempt to abolish the HRC. It was ultimately saved amid a compromise that changed its makeup. There also was discussion at that time about adding sexual orientation to the list of protected classes, but that was removed. (Thanks to former Councilman Jim Gardner for refreshing my memory on that one.)
Before that, in 1993, the late mayor Butch Felker commented that he would "consider" adding an openly gay person to serve on the HRC. However, I do not find any follow up where that happened.
For a look at Manspeaker's proposal, click here.