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Now what's the matter with Kansas?

A state with progressive roots becomes a home for culture wars.
Welcome to Kansas Sign.
Welcome to Kansas Sign.

In the last 30 days, legislators in Kansas have proposed bills to deny services to people they believe are gay or lesbian and sanction spanking of children to the point of bruising -- and that's on top of a lengthy list of restrictions on reproductive rights enacted with Republican Gov. Sam Brownback at the helm.

From immigration to civil rights, it has seemed as though Arizona, North Carolina, or Texas was perhaps ground zero in the current culture wars. But the Sunflower State has worked hard this week to wrest that mantle for itself.

Kansas wasn't always this way.

The state has a strong progressive streak in its history. This is where Americans took a stand against slavery during the Civil War and it is where Topeka parents in 1951 filed suit against the city’s board of education. That action led to one of the most historic Supreme Court Cases: Brown v. Board of Education, which ended school segregation.

“The culture wars are massively important there in people’s political consciousness,” author Thomas Frank said, who wrote What's the Matter with Kansas, a book that examined how the state shifted to the far right. “It seems strange because it’s a state where its history points in the other direction. This state was basically founded by abolitionists, and it’s had these brushes with radicalism throughout history,” Frank said.

The rightward shift hasn't gone unnoticed by journalists who cover the state. Jason Probst of the Hutchinson News, a daily newspaper, went as far to declare Kansas dead in a faux-obituary that has since gone viral.

“The Great State of Kansas passed away on March 31, 2013, after a long and difficult battle with extremism that became markedly more aggressive in 2010. The struggle left the state so weakened it could no longer fight against the relentless attacks by the fatal disease,” Probst wrote.

On February 12,  the states's GOP-dominated House passed bill 2453 which would have allowed private and public employers for religious reasons to deny services to individuals they believe to be gay. A similar law just passed in Arizona’s legislature; Tennessee and Oregon are considering similar measures.

Kansas senate vice president Jeff King killed the bill last week, but civil rights groups worry that another version could be on the way.

“If you like zombie films, then stick around,” says Thomas Witt of the lesbian and gay rights group Equality Kansas. The house bill had been introduced by Rep. Charles Macheers after being drafted by the American Religious Freedom Program, a DC-based think tank run by Edward Whelan, a former Reagan administration official who writes on legal affairs for the conservative magazine National Review.

“That bill number may be dead,” Witt said. “But there is chatter in the Capitol among the right wing extremists to bring this bill back in its original form or slightly altered form. there are legislators who want to see this passed.”

It’s not just Republicans who are proposing headline-grabbing legislation: Rep. Gail Finney, a state Democrat, introduced HB 2699, which would have allowed parents, caregivers, and teachers to hit children hard enough to cause redness or bruising.

“Parental corporal discipline in Kansas, along with 49 other states, has always been permitted. Unfortunately, Kansas has never affirmatively, expressly defined corporal discipline in Kansas statute,” Finney stated in a letter posted to her Web site.

The bill died in committee.

“I read that one and my jaw dropped,” says Republican Rep. Stephanie Clayton. “We all have a right to introduce legislation, but I’m glad that it didn’t go any further.”

Related: States fight to push anti-gay bills. But will they pass?

Clayton also couldn't abide by HB 2453. She was among 48 others who voted against the bill, proving that perhaps that the state's progressive, headstrong streak is still there.

“I voted against it because I read the bill, and I found it unacceptable,” Rep. Clayton said, who calls herself a pro-business Republican and notes it’s her duty to represent “all of my constituents.” She’s also clear in stating she doesn’t condone discrimination.

The vote forced Clayton to consider whether it could become a liability when she seeks re-election. After talking with her constituents, she says she no longer felt that concern.

In an interview, Probst of the Hutchinson News explained said the "obituary," he wrote had everything to do with bills from the far right. He said they were "designed to undo 100 years of progress in Kansas. I believed there was a disconnect between legislation coming out of Topeka and the core values of the average Kansan."

Probst said in the year since he published his missive, people from all over the state as well as former Kansas living elsewhere have written him saying he hit the nail on the head when it came to the state's political shift.

"After the obituary published, my beliefs had been confirmed - the extreme policies being promoted by the state legislature were not in line with the beliefs and values of Kansans," Probst said.

Frank said the shift rightward began in the early 1990s. “When I was writing [“What’s the Matter with Kansas?”], I wondered whatever happened to the Kansas that I knew. What was funny is that it’s not that the radicalism has disappeared, it’s that all of its language has been taken over by the other side."