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Kansas advocate sees Brownback stalling on gay marriage; state says benefits extended promptly

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TOPEKA, Kansas — A prominent Kansas gay rights advocate on Thursday accused Republican Gov. Sam Brownback of trying to hinder same-sex couples, even as lawyers for the state said in a legal filing that Kansas has been prompt in complying with the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state's leading gay rights group, denounced the conservative governor over his executive order blocking state sanctions against clergy and religious groups that refuse to perform gay weddings or provide goods, services, and accommodations for them. Witt said the order allows faith-based groups providing services for the state and local governments to deny them to gay couples.

Brownback contends the order protects the religious liberties of same-sex marriage opponents, and a top aide said it is not as broad as Witt claims.

Meanwhile, in a document filed in a federal lawsuit over Kansas' previously enforced ban on gay marriage, attorneys for various state officials noted moves by agencies under Brownback's control to extend benefits to married same-sex couples. The filing disclosed a previously unannounced decision this week by the Department of Revenue to allow same-sex couples to start filing joint income tax returns.

The American Civil Liberties Union filed the lawsuit last year on behalf of gay and lesbian couples. It challenged the gay marriage ban and the state's refusal to extend some benefits to same-sex couples, including the filing of joint income tax returns. The state said in its filing Thursday that none of those policies remain in effect, and the lawsuit should be dismissed.

But Witt was not assuaged, noting that Kansas still hasn't said whether it will allow gays and lesbians to adopt children in its custody as married same-sex couples instead of individuals. And, he said, Brownback's order is "far-reaching" in protecting groups that deny services to gays and lesbians.

"I think he has nothing but contempt and disdain for the gay and lesbian population here," Witt said.

In barring sanctions against gay marriage opponents by state government, the order includes all "political subdivisions" in the directive. Witt said Brownback declared himself "the supreme ruler" of cities, counties, school districts and other local governments, dismissing the order as "the unhinged raving of a tyrant and a dictator."

"The governor has overreached, overstepped his authority — and not in a small way," Witt said in an interview. "It's a power grab and certainly an unconstitutional one."

Brownback spokeswoman Eileen Hawley said the order does not apply to local officials but, "only those agencies and political subdivisions over which the Governor has legal authority."

And in Thursday's court filing, attorneys for the state noted that this week it opened its health insurance plan for state workers to their same-sex spouses and began allowing married gays and lesbians to change their names on their driver's licenses.

The attorneys also filed an affidavit from Richard Cram, the Department of Revenue's policy director, saying that a previous policy against joint income tax filings by same-sex couples was "no longer valid." Department spokeswoman Jeannine Koranda confirmed that joint returns are allowed.

The state's filing said "there has been prompt and voluntary compliance" with "all aspects" of the U.S. Supreme Court decision on gay marriage.

"This lawsuit no longer provides a vehicle for meaningful judicial relief," the filing said. "It must be dismissed as moot."

U.S. District Judge Daniel Crabtree gave the ACLU a week to respond to the filing.


Online:

Equality Kansas: http://eqks.org/

Brownback's office: https://governor.ks.gov/


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