Kansas ponders new protections for campus religious groups

? Kansas legislators could enact new legal protections for faith-based groups on state college campuses, even though the state already has a religious objections law.

Religious groups seeking to protect student chapters’ ability to limit membership argue that the bill they’re pursuing this year sets a clearer legal standard and prevents lawsuits. Critics contend schools wouldn’t be allowed to withhold taxpayer-financed support even if groups discriminate based on race or national origin.

The Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature is considering the measure despite the backlash against recent religious objections measures approved by lawmakers in Indiana and Arkansas amid protests that they’d allow discrimination against gays and lesbians. While those controversies hang over the Kansas debate, advocates on both sides said the measure dealing with campus groups deals with broader issues.

And Kansas already has a “religious freedom” law, enacted in 2013, saying that state or local government agencies can’t substantially limit someone’s exercise of religion without a compelling reason. It allows lawsuits to challenge government actions.

But this year’s proposal would specifically prohibit state universities, community colleges and technical colleges from refusing to recognize or provide funds, space or other resources to religious groups for requiring leaders or members to profess certain beliefs or adhere to a faith-based code of conduct.

“The campus administration would have a very clear rule,” said Kim Colby, director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom for the Christian Legal Society, which has chapters at law schools across the nation, including Washburn University in Topeka. “It’s just a much better protection.”

The Senate approved the bill last month, and it has cleared a House committee. The full House could debate the measure after lawmakers end their annual spring break April 29.

Micah Kubic, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas, said the bill is problematic because campus religious groups would gain “an absolute right” to public support, regardless of their policies.

“You not only have the right to exist, but the right to be publicly funded and have access to public facilities,” Kubic said.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 in a case involving the Christian Legal Society chapter at a California law school that a university is allowed to impose non-discrimination policies on religious groups.

Kansas Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Jeff King, an Independence Republican, said the high court ruling suggested a need for state laws dealing specifically with campus groups.

And Curtis Cole, administrative director of Chi Alpha, the nationwide college ministry affiliated with the Assemblies of God church, said, “The waters are very muddy.”

With the furor over the Indiana and Arkansas proposals, supporters have faced questions about whether the Kansas bill is designed to allow groups to bar openly gay and lesbian members — even without mentioning it or same-sex marriage. The measure would, but it’s broader and would shield groups if they require officers to profess a certain faith or limit who can lead worship or Bible studies.

The Kansas Board of Regents, overseeing the state’s higher education system, has an anti-discrimination policy for student groups that includes sexual orientation. But it acknowledges a group’s right “to establish standards for membership.”

Kansas ACLU officials know of no case in which an individual, business or group has filed a lawsuit challenging a government action under the state’s existing religious freedom law.

But ACLU officials said that law sets a high legal standard for a college attempting to impose anti-discrimination policies on religious groups. With this year’s proposal, any chance of a college prevailing in a dispute would disappear, they said.

“There is no court challenge, no litigation, that’s needed,” said Eunice Rho, advocacy and policy counsel with the ACLU’s national office in New York. “The university or college could not defend its policy in court.”

The Christian Legal Society and Chi Alpha cite at least 15 instances over the past 12 years in which chapters across the nation have faced complaints or other challenges.

The list includes the Washburn chapter of the Christian Legal Society. It filed a federal lawsuit in 2004 after student leaders blocked funding over a Mormon student’s complaint about being dropped as a Bible-study leader. The decision was rescinded and the lawsuit was dismissed.

Colby said a lawsuit can be expensive and, if it drags out, a group can die.

“They want to be meeting,” Colby said. “They don’t want to be litigating.”