Kansas House panel to hear ‘religious freedom’ bill for campus groups

? A bill that would require colleges and universities in Kansas to give official recognition and support to student religious groups that discriminate in their membership will get a hearing Monday in the House Federal and State Affairs Committee.

Senate Bill 175, which passed the Senate earlier this month by a vote of 30-8, is one of dozens of so-called religious freedom bills being debated in state legislatures nationwide this year, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.

It would prohibit public colleges and universities from withholding support or recognition from student religious groups that require their members and leaders to adhere to sincerely held religious beliefs or to comply with their religious standards of conduct.

During debate on the bill in the Senate, supporters said it is model legislation being adopted in other states, largely in response to colleges universities refusing to allow such groups to meet on campus or to receive any financial support from a university.

One of the groups cited was the Christian Legal Society that was the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010. That ruling said the University of California, Hastings Law School was justified in denying recognition to that group because California has an “open door” law that prohibits funding student groups that are not open to all students.

The Christian Legal Society requires its members to sign a statement affirming their belief in certain strict Christian tenets, and does not admit students who engage in “unrepentant homosexual conduct.”

“The issue at stake in SB 175 is not whether student organizations are free to believe and associate as they like — they are,” said Micah Kubic, executive director of the ACLU in Kansas. “Instead, the issue is whether student organizations have a right to be publicly funded to operate in a discriminatory manner. They should not.”

Kansas does not have an “open door” statute, and the official policy of the Kansas Board of Regents governing student associations is not as wide open.

That includes a general non-discrimination policy that “prohibits discrimination on the basis of age, race, color, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, physical handicap or disability, status as a Vietnam Era Veteran, sexual orientation or other factors which cannot be lawfully considered.”

It also says student groups have the right to select their own members, as long as all students have an equal opportunity to meet those standards, and it recognizes the right of certain groups, such as honor societies and athletic teams, to select members on the basis of merit.

And on the issue of funding, the policy states: “The chief executive officer shall be ultimately responsible for reviewing proposed expenditures from fees required of every student as a condition of enrollment and as determining whether such expenditures are in support of an appropriate student activity.”

Kansas University spokesman Tim Caboni called the bill “a solution in search of a problem.”

“Our concern with Senate Bill 175 is that it’s unnecessary given (that) Regents policy on non-discrimination for registered student groups,” Caboni said. “Moreover, not once in the past 15 years has a KU student group ever been denied funding based on religious beliefs.”