Kansas Senate passes ‘religious freedom’ bill for campus student groups

? Colleges and universities in Kansas would have to give the same recognition and support to religious student organizations with exclusive membership rules that they give to any other organization, under a bill that passed the Kansas Senate late Thursday.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, said controversies have arisen in other states where student groups have been forced to move off campus if they do not allow all students the right to join.

“This is the sort of overbearing interference with personal freedom that we’re trying to guard against,” Fitzgerald said.

The issue gained national attention in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of the University of California, Hastings School of Law to withhold recognition to the Christian Legal Society, a group which requires its members to attest in writing that they adhere to certain strict Christian beliefs.

Fitzgerald said a similar controversy occurred recently at the Washburn Law School in Topeka involving that same organization, although he said that situation was settled within the university.

Democratic Sens. Marci Francisco of Lawrence and Tom Holland of Baldwin City questioned whether there were any such student groups in Kansas and whether any public institutions in Kansas have similar policies.

“In the absence of any real-life examples that we’re trying to address, I just think we’re opening up a can of worms for something else,” Holland said.

But Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook, R-Shawnee, said there have been enough examples of student religious groups being denied recognition to warrant passing such a law in Kansas.

“It’s too bad that we have to work so hard to retain this liberty in our great state of Kansas,” she said.

The American Civil Liberties Union said similar bills have been introduced in nearly half the states this year.

Eunice Roh, the ACLU’s advocacy and policy counsel, said in an interview this week that the question is not whether students should be allowed to form religious associations with exclusive membership rules.

“Student groups on campus can compose and select their membership however they choose, but it is our position that public taxpayer dollars should not be used to fund student groups that discriminate,” Roh said.

The bill passed on a party-line vote of 30-6, with two Republicans and two Democrats absent. It now goes to the Kansas House for consideration.