TOPEKA — As the Rev. Sarah Oglesby-Dunegan watched chaos unfold in the Senate chamber, where she brought proceedings to a halt in May by singing in the balcony and refusing to leave, she was thinking about the people who don't have health insurance and need it desperately.
Oglesby-Dunegan, pastor at Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Topeka, led eight other people in the brazen attempt to force a vote on Medicaid expansion on the final day of the legislative session.
“I was thinking about the members of my congregation and the people I’ve met around the state who struggle every day to make ends meet, who work low-wage jobs and can’t pay for health insurance, and how wrong that is," Oglesby-Dunegan said.
The rise of civil disobedience at the Statehouse over the past 18 months, fueled by the Poor People's Campaign and supporters of Medicaid expansion, exposed a complex landscape where rules diverge from one floor to the next and sanctions are inconsistently applied by law enforcement. Republican leaders in the Legislature, the Democratic governor's administration and Capitol Police remain entangled in negotiations with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas over how to proceed.
The protest in the Senate balcony revealed a widening fissure among stakeholders involved with safety and decorum in the Statehouse. The ACLU had filed a lawsuit weeks earlier after three Kansas State University students were detained by Capitol Police Officer Scott Whitsell and ordered to stay away from the Statehouse for a year. The ban was rescinded a day later.
The students, joined by Oglesby-Dunegan and Leavenworth County resident Thea Perry, had lowered massive banners declaring Republican leaders of the House and Senate had "blood on their hands" for not expanding access to Medicaid health insurance to 130,000 low-income Kansas adults and children.
The House passed a Medicaid expansion bill, but Republican leaders on the Senate side refused to allow a vote on the legislation, even though a majority of senators would have voted in favor of the bill.
Oglesby-Dunegan said the impasse called for "extraordinary actions."
"It’s extraordinary for somebody to interrupt the Senate," she said, "and I certainly would never do that if I didn’t feel like every level of the process was both nontransparent and non-accountable. We have leadership pulling tricks that prevent legislation from moving forward that clearly should move forward.”
When Oglesby-Dunegan refused to leave the balcony during the end-of-session demonstration, Capitol Police — a wing of the Kansas Highway Patrol — declined to force the issue. Whitsell later testified about the new approach. Police, who don't have the authority to arrest someone who hasn't committed a crime, no longer were willing to enforce administrative rules.
For 20 minutes, Oglesby-Dunegan and her cohorts continued to sing and chant while lawmakers and the security team led by Tom Day, director of Legislative Administrative Services, struggled to find a resolution. The physically imposing Day hovered over the pastor while Senate President Susan Wagle's staff ordered the removal of media under the threat of losing floor passes to the Senate chambers.
Police eventually forced the demonstrators to leave with the threat of arrest. Oglesby-Dunegan said she was issued a citation, although the district attorney hasn't filed charges.
It isn't clear what will happen the next time a flagrant rule-breaker defies orders.
"For us to proceed next session," said House Speaker Ron Ryckman, R-Olathe, "we need to have assurance that the highway patrol will not be told to stand down based on politics."
Ryckman and Wagle, R-Wichita, expressed concerns with the ACLU lawsuit during a meeting in December of the Legislative Coordinating Council, the entity responsible for drafting administrative rules for the third, fourth and fifth floors of the Statehouse. The LCC includes the majority and minority leaders of both chambers, as well as the House speaker and Senate president.
The rules set by the LCC were in conflict with a policy rolled out in October by Gov. Laura Kelly's administration, which has domain over the first and second floors. The new policy for the lower levels no longer restricts the use of signs or requires a legislator to sponsor an activity.
Republican leaders prefer to retain their administrative rule banning anyone from carrying a sign into the Statehouse.
"I think signs can be very dangerous," Wagle said. "They can be thrown. They can be on poles. They can hurt people. A rod on a sign can be very heavy, and it can be used as a weapon. We've never had signs in the Capitol in the past, and I don't believe we should have signs now simply because there are issues that we debate that people feel very strongly about, and there are people who want to oppress free speech, and there are people who when they get angry they lose their temper and they can hurt someone."
Oglesby-Dunegan said it was "ridiculous" to suggest a sign is a security threat in a building where the concealed carrying of firearms is allowed.
Settlement talks in the lawsuit revolve around an agreement proposed by the ACLU to allow small handheld signs, a compromise on the need to find a legislative sponsor for a demonstration, and a formal written policy by police for banning people from the Statehouse.
"Some reaction obviously is appropriate if there’s a disruption of session," said Lauren Bonds, legal director for ACLU of Kansas. "We’re not saying that it’s not appropriate for highway patrol or security or Tom Day to intervene."
Bonds said it appears that Day and his staff have the authority to physically remove someone who violates rules.
Oglesby-Dunegan said the possibility of ongoing protests would be determined by whether lawmakers move forward with a Medicaid expansion plan, as they have promised to do.
She said she has "other interesting things" she could be doing, such as writing sermons.
“I would much prefer to be the kind of citizen who writes a letter to the editor occasionally, shows up to watch what’s happening, meets with my legislator, writes letters to them, has a more normal citizen advocacy relationship with government," Oglesby-Dunegan said.