KANSAS GOV. Sam Brownback (R) insisted last week that employers should “provide opportunity to all individuals without discrimination.” Just not, apparently, when those individuals are gay.
In one executive order last week, Mr. Brownback decreed that state agencies must go out of their way to recruit veterans and individuals with physical or mental disabilities. “Hiring and retaining diverse, highly qualified employees . . . requires leadership support and attention,” Mr. Brownback wrote. “Given that State employees make significant contributions to the State’s success, it makes good business sense to treat employees . . . with dignity and respect.”
In another order, issued the same day, Mr. Brownback violated those admirable principles. The governor rescinded a previous executive order that forbade the state government from discriminating against employees based on sexual orientation or gender identity.
Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D) established the previous policy in 2007, before she left Kansas to lead the Health and Human Services Department. Kansas law bars employment discrimination on the basis of race, religion, color, sex, disability, national origin, ancestry or age, and Ms. Sebelius decided that state government should do better than the bare minimum.
Mr. Brownback disagrees. Reverting to the bare minimum, he argued last week, “ensures that state employees enjoy the same civil rights as all Kansans without creating additional ‘protected classes’ as the previous order did. Any such expansion of ‘protected classes’ should be done by the legislature and not through unilateral action.”
Mr. Brownback might want to be seen as a conservative who caters to veterans, not gays. But his official rationale is embarrassingly weak. Just like chief executives in the private sector, governors and the president set workplace policies within their executive branches all the time. Those policies don’t apply to private employers; it’s up to lawmakers to mandate state or national anti-discrimination policy. That’s no reason for governors or the president to sanction discrimination in the meantime, particularly when “it makes good business sense to treat employees . . . with dignity and respect.”
Even Mr. Brownback doesn’t seem to think his explanation is plausible: “The executive power of the Governor of Kansas has been exercised through the issuance of Executive Orders, Executive Directives, and Proclamations,” he wrote in the very order rescinding the previous non-discrimination policy. “The issuance of such documents is recognized as an inherent power vested in the chief executive of this state.”
Stripping anti-discrimination policy already in force is a mean, ugly step.
In fact, leaders in Kansas and other states — not to mention in Congress — should be moving in the opposite direction. Federal courts seem to be in the process of dismantling one persisting institution of anti-gay prejudice — same-sex marriage bans across the nation. But only a handful of states have full anti-discrimination laws that offer protection on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Improving anti-discrimination laws is the next frontier in the gay and lesbian rights movement. Most of the nation is moving in the right direction, albeit too slowly. Then there’s Sam Brownback, resolutely riding backward into the future.