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Brownback hired ex-lawmaker who tried to allow denial of services to same-sex couples

Kansas City Star - 1/9/2018

Jan. 09--Gov. Sam Brownback's administration is employing a former lawmaker who sponsored legislation to enable workers to refuse to serve same-sex couples.

Former state Rep. Charles Macheers, a Shawnee Republican and attorney, was hired as deputy general counsel by the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services in February 2017, a month after his term in the Legislature ended. Johnson County voters ousted him in the 2016 Republican primary.

The position pays more than $84,500 a year, according to Angela de Rocha, the spokeswoman for KDADS.

Macheers in 2014 sponsored a bill that would have enabled public and private sector workers to refuse to serve same-sex couples based on "sincerely held religious beliefs."

The bill, which passed the Kansas House, was blocked from ever receiving a vote in the Senate after GOP leaders raised concerns about discrimination in the wake of international criticism of the legislation.

Macheers and other supporters maintained that the bill was meant to protect the rights of religious Kansans if the U.S. Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage, something that happened the following year.

"It's hugely disappointing that Sam Brownback rewarded former state representative Charles Macheers with a nice staff job," said Tom Witt, the executive director of Equality Kansas, the leading gay rights organization in Kansas.

"Macheers' sponsorship of 2014's so-called 'religious freedom' bill protecting anti-LGBT discrimination was an embarrassment to our state," Witt said in an email. "Rewarding Macheers for his role in that bigoted legislation is more evidence Brownback should not be confirmed as Religious Freedom ambassador."

Brownback's spokesman, Bob Murray, did not comment on the criticism. He said in a phone call that the governor was solely focused on Tuesday evening's State of the State address.

Macheers could not be reached for comment.

Brownback was first nominated to serve as ambassador-at-large for religious freedom in July, but his nomination has moved slowly after Democrats in the U.S. Senate raised concerns about his record on LGBT rights, including his decision to strip gay LGBT state workers of an anti-discrimination protection in 2015.

The Senate did not act on his nomination in 2017. President Donald Trump on Monday formally resubmitted his name to the Senate.

Not all of Macheers' former colleagues knew he had been hired for an administration post.

Rep. Jarrod Ousley, an Overland Park Democrat who joined the Legislature in 2015, said he was unaware of the hiring until he saw Macheers' name on the calendar as presenter for a meeting Thursday of the House Committee on Children and Seniors.

"I can see that being worrisome," said Ousley, the committee's ranking Democrat, in reference to Macheers' record on LGBT rights.

KDADS administers the state hospitals and Medicaid coverage for disabled Kansans.

Another state agency, the Kansas Department for Children and Families, has faced accusations of discriminatory practices against same-sex couples for several years.

That agency's new secretary, Gina Meier-Hummel, promised last month that there would be zero tolerance for anti-LGBT discrimination.

Ousley, who had been an outspoken critic of DCF, noted that he joined the Legislature after the controversy over Macheers' bill and does not know the former lawmaker well, but he said he would "get my pencil sharpened" ahead of Thursday's meeting.

He added in a text Monday night that he hopes he will not have to request an audit of KDADS.

Rep. Shelee Brim, the Shawnee Republican who defeated Macheers in a three-way primary in 2016, said she discovered that Macheers had been hired in the state last year when she saw him around the Capitol.

"I think he had an ambition to continue to work here and that was one to stay in the system. We don't have a lot of interaction or anything here. We just see each other in the hallways," Brim said. "I think our Johnson County people know. ... But other than that, I don't know."

Bryan Lowry: 816-234-4077, @BryanLowry3

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(c)2018 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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