As the elected leaders in the city of 160,000 debate whether to prohibit discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodations based on sexual orientation and gender identity, Doenning and other activists are optimistic. They also know legal protections are anything but assured in a city that’s home to the national headquarters of the Assemblies of God Church and three Bible colleges.
Across the heartland, from regional economic hubs in southwest Missouri such as Springfield to the Kansas plains and Nebraska college towns, the battle for gay rights is playing out in city halls and town squares, often with opponents of expanded nondiscrimination laws trying to reverse decisions by government officials.
“Places like Springfield, Missouri, are the trenches of this battle right now,” said Doenning.
In Lincoln, Neb., the groups Family First and the Nebraska Family Council quickly collected more than 10,000 signatures challenging a “fairness amendment” approved by the City Council in May, forcing the city to either let the ordinance die or submit it for voter approval. No decision was reached before the deadline for the November ballot.
Omaha, the state’s largest city, narrowly passed an ordinance in March extending legal protections to gay and transgender residents after a tie vote scuttled a similar attempt in October 2010.
In the Kansas towns of Salina and Hutchinson, opponents of expanded nondiscrimination laws in the Kansas towns of Salina and Hutchinson have collected enough signatures to force public votes after similar recent decisions by their city leaders.
Something similar could happen in Springfield, where the City Council is meeting Monday.
A public hearing earlier this month drew hundreds of residents, with most speakers approving of the change. But the eight council members and Mayor Bob Stephens — five of whom, including the mayor, face re-election in April 2013— are hearing rumblings that their support could have political consequences, said council member Doug Burlison, who favors the change.
To force a vote, opponents in Springfield would need to collect just 2,101 valid signatures in 30 days. One council member has said he already plans to call for a public vote.
In 1994, city voters handily rejected a hate crimes law that had been passed by the City Council and was brought to voters in a petition drive. Groups opposed to the ordinance subsequently targeted council members who had supported the law.
Nearly two decades later, organizers say Springfield is overdue for basic legal protections for gays and lesbians. They point to the Missouri college town of Columbia, which has had such enhanced protection in its nondiscrimination ordinance for years; as well as other cities of comparable size and characteristics, including Evansville, Ind.; Columbus, Ohio; Columbia, S.C.; and Grand Rapids, Mich.