The small Mennonite community of Buhler made headlines last summer when its official city sign bearing a cross sparked a lawsuit threat from the Freedom From Religion Foundation. Organization officials claimed Buhler’s sign violated the U.S. Constitution by favoring Christianity over other religions.
The sign was quickly taken down and replaced with two similar ones on private land, but the event became a catalyst for the creation of a new House measure regarding religious displays on public property.
Supporters of HB 2037 say the bill would notify city governments that it’s legal to display religious symbols on public grounds if they are a part of local history or heritage.
Rep. Don Schroeder, R-Hesston, testified in favor of the bill during a hearing Thursday in the Federal and State Affairs Committee. He said religious displays like Buhler’s sign don’t defy the Constitution.
“A lot of people talk about ‘separation of church and state,’ ” Schroeder said. “That’s not in the Constitution. However, there is an establishment clause, which says the government shall make no law regarding religion. It doesn’t go the other way around; it doesn’t say that religion cannot be involved in government.”
Organizations like Americans United for Separation of Church and State aren’t so quick to agree with Schroeder’s interpretation of the Constitution. Vickie Sandell Stangl, president of the group’s Great Plains chapter, said Schroeder’s argument ignores the vision of the Founding Fathers.
“Why would you have in the Constitution the fact that the government can’t interfere with religion, but religion can interfere with the government? How does that protect the government? How does that make a stable society if it’s not a two-way street?” Stangl asked. “That does not create a stable society. That would be my answer to them on that.”
The bill, while not deviating drastically from the current law, would also allow religious displays in public schools.
According to a written testimony by Mark Hallman, spokesperson for the Kansas Association of Public Schools, such displays “must be done in connection with a course of study that is academic, balanced, objective and not devotional in nature, and does not favor or disfavor any religion or religious belief.”
House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfried, R-Olathe, expects HB 2037 to be voted on next week.
As chairman of the Federal and State Affairs Committee, he dismisses questions surrounding the bill’s constitutionality.
“I do not believe that having a cross on a sign forces an atheist to be a believer,” Siegfried says. “I just don’t believe that.”