For a while, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback was saying it was going to be pretty difficult to start offering benefits to same-sex couples who worked for the state following the landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling.
It took a few days, but the state finally started granting gay and lesbian couples benefits. But local governments have been quietly offering same-sex benefits for some time.
In his first comments after the high court ruling on June 26, Brownback hinted that changing the state’s benefit plan to allow same-sex couples would be a huge, bureaucratic effort. “Well, you have to understand and get the mechanisms in place," said Brownback. "And so that’s what we’ve been studying with the attorney general, with the relevant cabinet agencies.”
But what about all those Kansans who work for a school district or a city?
Turns out, without fanfare, many have been getting same-sex marriage benefits for a while.
"I think it was just part of our, honestly, normal review," says Kristin Crow, HR manager for Lenexa. "It was one of the things we put on the list with the broker when we went to review for the new plan year."
If this sounds like a decision made after a few meetings in some nondescript municipal conference room, you’re right. Crow says the City of Lenexa has been offering benefits to same-sex couples since the beginning of the year, a decision that didn’t even need city council approval.
So while offering benefits to same-sex couples is something that vexed Kansas and other states, it seems to be a non-issue for local governments. The Blue Valley School District says it has offered benefits since 2013. Johnson County added same-sex couples last November.
On the Missouri side, Kansas City, Jackson County, along with dozens of school districts in the state offer same-sex benefits. The Kansas City Public Schools says it's in the process of offering same-sex benefits.
Overland Park’s chief HR officer, Mike Garcia, says it just wasn’t a difficult decision. "We believed the definitions for eligibility for dependents and spouses under our benefits plans really allowed for that."
Garcia says he didn't make any difference whether an employee got married in Iowa or Massachusetts, as long as they were legally married they qualified for city benefits.
So all seemed fine for county commissions, library boards or water districts. But then Brownback issued an executive order last week.
“Religious liberty is at the heart of who we are as an American people and of Kansans," said Brownback as he signed the order, barring he state from taking any discriminatory action against a religious organization that doesn’t recognize same-sex marriages.
The order defined the state as: all departments, commissions, boards, agencies, and political subdivisions of the State of Kansas.
Kansas ACLU legal director Doug Bonney says it’s that political subdivision part that worries him. "I’m not sure whether it was bad drafting to begin with or it was intentional."
Bonney says it appeared Brownback was trying to make himself king of Kansas. But pretty quickly, the governor’s press office backtracked and said the order had no effect on local officials.
Still, Bonney says, the wording remains and could cause problems which are political rather than legal.
"The problem really is whether some local governments might be chilled in actions they want to take by that portion of the executive order that reads as if the governor is ordering local governments not to do something."
Bonney says he wants the executive order rewritten just to make sure some local official somewhere in Kansas doesn’t misinterpret it as the governor saying no to anything to do with same-sex marriage.