Gay rights at the heart of lively WU debate

The Capital-Journal/December 8, 2003
By Chris Moon

Neither backed down. But no one expected them to.

On one side, the Rev. Fred W. Phelps Sr. quoted Bible verses. Homosexuality is an "abomination," he said, much like he has been saying publicly for more than a decade.

On the other, Pedro Irigonegaray called for equality under the law. Discrimination against one is the same as discrimination against everyone -- the same thing he has been saying in his recent crusade to amend the city's anti-discrimination ordinance.

And so it was at Wednesday night's debate between the two high-profile Topekans.

Phelps and his Westboro Baptist Church have protested against gays and lesbians across the country. Irigonegaray has been one of Topeka's most vocal supporters of gay rights.

Wednesday's debate, sponsored by the Washburn Law Democrats and the Washburn Student Bar Association, was held in Ballroom A in Washburn University's Memorial Student Union.

Washburn law professor David Ryan moderated the debate. Panelists were Bob Eye, a Topeka lawyer; Jim Cates, talk show host on 1440 AM KMAJ; Pete Goering, columnist for The Topeka Capital-Journal; and Levi Henry, a Washburn law student.

Both are advocates with a theatrical flair.

Needless to say, a capacity crowd was on hand at Washburn's student union to hear them battle it out.

The two-hour debate, sponsored by the Washburn Law Democrats and the Washburn Student Bar Association, centered on a possible amendment to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance that would have made gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgendered people a protected class.

The Topeka City Council last year rejected just such an amendment. The current ordinance already makes it illegal to discriminate based on race, religion, gender and other factors.

There hasn't been any visible movement on the council to resurrect the issue. But national polls show Americans are still deeply divided on issues involving gays and lesbians.

Phelps demanded evidence that an amendment to the city's anti-discrimination ordinance was needed. Past studies by city officials have yielded no cases of discrimination in Topeka against people because of their sexual orientation, he said.

He made that almost his singular argument.

"Evidence, please!" he demanded.

Irigonegaray said the evidence is there.

"If I were a homosexual, that would be the last place I'd go," he said.

The crowd applauded, clearly taking Irigonegaray's side. But several of the 400-or-so people in attendance were supportive of Phelps, in addition to his family.

"Someone has to do a little besides flamboyant rhetoric," Phelps said -- adding a little of his own.

Irigonegaray hadn't provided any evidence, he said.

"It is a canard to pretend that homosexuals need this law," Phelps said.

A canard is an untrue statement and was clearly Phelps' word of the night.

Direct appeal to the audience was Irigonegaray's main tactic.

As the debate wore on through questions about how an expanded human rights ordinance would affect economic development, the housing and job markets, and the city as a whole over the next 30 years, Phelps pulled out more Bible verses.

By the break, St. Marys lawyer Charles Baylor said his opinion was reinforced. While Phelps didn't represent the views of most Christians, his point was on target, he said.

Discrimination happens, Baylor said as he smoked a cigarette just outside the student union.

"These gay advocates just want to force it down people's throats and convince them that it's wonderful," he said.

Bob Cutler, a supporter of an expanded anti-discrimination ordinance, said the issue has "turned into a politically correct sacred cow." Its divisiveness makes it difficult to debate rationally, he said.

Irigonegaray, he said regretfully, was proof of that.

"He hasn't really been able to stick to the premise" and provide the proof that gays are discriminated against in Topeka. Cutler said he was certain such evidence could be gathered.

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