Kansas governor signs bill protecting faith groups on campus
Topeka ? Kansas’ conservative Republican governor signed legislation Tuesday allowing faith-based groups at college campuses to restrict membership to like-minded people, likely putting the state on a collision course with civil liberties groups.
The GOP-dominated Legislature approved the legislation earlier this month, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly six years ago that universities can require membership in such groups to be open to all. Supporters have said the bill was a victory for the freedom to exercise religious beliefs, but opponents called it a veiled attempt to legalize discrimination.
Kansas already has a religious objections law that prevents state or local governments from limiting people’s freedom to express their religion, though that law doesn’t touch on organizations at universities. With Gov. Sam Brownback’s signature, Kansas becomes the second state after Oklahoma to have a college-specific law.
“This is very good, narrow, targeted piece of legislation that will serve the betterment of our college campuses,” Brownback said.
The new law, which will take effect July 1, will prevent public colleges and universities from denying religious groups funds or campus resources for limiting their memberships.
Critics argue that the bill is far broader than its supporters acknowledge and will in effect force minority students and their parents to support groups that would actively discriminate against them. They said the new law will sanction discrimination not only against gays and lesbians, but based on race, gender or disabilities.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas is considering a legal challenge “very seriously,” said Micah Kubic, its executive director.
“It’s a step backward to a time when government was actively enabling discrimination against people based on who they are,” Kubic said.
The new law stems from a handful of on-campus incidents in Kansas and other states, including a lawsuit filed by a Christian group after Washburn University said the group couldn’t require student members to recognize the Bible, not the Book of Mormon, as the word of God. The issue emerged after a Mormon student at the Topeka school was forbidden from leading the group’s Bible study.
Opponents of the new law have said it could risk the loss of federal grant money and the state would waste money defending it in court. Brownback said the legislation was “worked pretty extensively” and “pretty well balanced.”
The U.S. Supreme Court ruling originated from a California incident. The Christian Legal Society at the University of California-Hastings College of Law was refused recognition and funding after it required all members to sign a form saying they would abstain from premarital or same-sex sexual conduct. In a 5-4 decision, the high court backed the university’s right to do so.
The debate in Kansas follows an uproar last year over a religious objections law in Indiana, and to a lesser extent a measure in Arkansas. Critics in those cases said the laws would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians by allowing service providers, such as florists, to deny their services for same-sex weddings. Both states revised their laws, though they still allow certain religious objections.