Let’s talk about a couple of bills that are causing much of the rest of the country to gawk at our state right now.
In March, the Kansas House of Representatives passed HB 2260, which they called the Preservation of Religious Freedom Act. This bill, which is currently being tossed around congress as SB 142, would legally protect people who, under the cloak of religion, choose not to serve those whose sexual orientation does not mesh with their own religious tenets. Meanwhile, the House has just passed H Sub. SB 62, a vaguely worded bill concerning medical care facilities, abortion, and sterilization and a provider’s right, again under the cloak of religion, to not offer, refer, or discuss such medical issues or procedures with their patients.
What is interesting – and in a very sad way – is that non-Kansans watching this circus aren’t surprised that our elected officials are using what precious little money we have in our state’s coffers to introduce and pass these measures. They might be outraged, horrified, or amused, but they’re not surprised that our state could pass, with a majority, any legislation that could be perceived as anti-women or anti-civil liberties.
But these non-Kansans should be surprised. The should be astonished. Because Kansas has served as a platform for the kinds of leaps in civil liberties other states didn’t have the guts to pursue. The state was created in the middle of a bloody fight over slavery, and Kansas entered the Union as an antislavery state in 1861. In 1867, Kansas Governor Samuel Crawford, a Civil War general and a Republican (when being a Republican meant something completely different), campaigned to ratify an amendment that called for “impartial suffrage without regard to race or color.”
Though the amendment did not pass at that time, the Kansas Equal Suffrage Association did win the right for women to vote in local elections, and Kansas was in the international spotlight when Susanna Madora Salter became the very first woman in the nation to be elected to political office in 1887. She even gave birth during her term as mayor.
In 1912, Kansas women were granted equal voting rights to their male counterparts, joining the ranks of women in only seven other states.
Down the line, Kansans like Attorney General Charles Griffith and newspaperman William Allen White would battle the Ku Klux Klan, and teachers like Corinthian Nutter and a handful of parents in Topeka would fight for the educational rights of minority children.
None of these battles were easy. But, over time, the state of Kansas moved progressively toward greater and more equal civil liberties.
Which brings us back to HB 2260/SB 142 and H Sub. SB 62.
What bothers me most about both of these bills is that they weigh the rights of the person with power above the rights of the person being served, something that is completely contrary to Kansas’ historically progressive moment toward the civil liberties of those who might have a disadvantaged status. The religious rights of the landlord are protected, but what about the religious rights of the person trying to find safe, affordable housing? The medical doctor’s personal beliefs are protected, but what about the personal beliefs of the patient who is entrusting his or her (and let’s face it, in this bill, patients being impacted will primarily be female) health to that doctor?
Whose religious rights are more important?
As a woman, I’m appalled by the H Sub. SB 62, not because I don’t believe the provider’s religious rights matter, but because it such an easy leap to deny women the right to participate in their own healthcare decisions by not informing them of the pros and cons of all of their legally available choices. For many people, this is easily dismissed because it targets reproductive issues. Yet this bill could serve as a gateway to stronger legislation. Replace “abortion” and “sterilization” with “heart surgery” or “skin graft,” and contemplate what it would be like for your family to find out you were denied the option to get a new kidney because the surgeon at your small town’s only hospital is religiously opposed to interfering with the body’s natural healing process, and you begin to see how dangerous this law really is.
As a woman, I’m just as disgusted with HB 2260/SB 142 because one day, I might have a child, and that child might be gay, and it saddens me to think he or she might not be able to find a safe and affordable place to live because of that sexual orientation. From a purely practical point of view, it seems potentially self-defeating; heterosexuality isn’t necessarily a litmus test for being a quality tenant. Frankly, most landlords I know would rent to a pair of rabid gorillas if they kept the property tidy, mowed the lawn, and paid their rent on time.
As a woman who is a taxpayer, I am furious that our state, the state that I love, the state that has a history of moving toward expanding the rights of its citizens, is spending my money on these bills that are very anti-Kansas. Worse, I’m angry at the lack of transparency in the creation and the passage of these bills. Did my elected officials vote in favor of these bills? The Kansas Legislature web site is careful not to let anyone know.
It’s time to unearth our progressive roots. It’s time to stop wasting energy on these negative bills that degrade our sense of civil liberties and make us look as foolish and backward as much of the rest of the nation already perceives our state to be. If we’re going to make the rest of the country watch our state with open-mouthed awe, let’s do it for the right reasons.