Protections for religious student groups pass Kansas Senate

A bill that supporters say protects religious freedom on college campuses but opponents say gives student groups a license to discriminate passed the Kansas Senate on Thursday.

SB 175 prohibits the state’s universities from taking action against student religious groups that require members to adhere to the group’s religious beliefs. The bill passed 30-8. It now goes to the House.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, who sponsored the bill, said it was intended to ensure religious freedom on campuses. He listed examples from other states in which universities had rescinded recognition for Christian student groups that did not follow the colleges’ anti-discrimination policies

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

Sen. Laura Kelly, D-Topeka, asked Fitzgerald if the bill would allow a Catholic student group to refuse to allow a student who supports abortion rights or a gay student to join even if that student professed to be a Catholic.

Fitzgerald did not directly address her question. He said if a person’s actions were serious enough, perhaps he or she could be forced out of a group.

He said lawmakers were diving into hypothetical questions that did not pertain to the bill.

Sen. Marci Francisco, D-Lawrence, whose district includes the University of Kansas, expressed concerns about provisions that allow student groups to require members to adhere and comply with an “association’s sincerely held religious beliefs.” She wondered how this would be enforced and how it would affect students’ privacy.

After the debate, Sen. David Haley, D-Kansas City, joked that maybe groups could require members to take blood oaths.

Haley said some students might want to join an organization for a faith other than their own as a way to learn about another religion. He worried that this bill would enable student groups to “say we don’t want your kind in our organization because you’re not one of us, you’re one of them.”

Fitzgerald called this a “hypothetical world” and said that nondiscrimination policies were being misused by universities in other states to drive off and discriminate against religious groups.

Sen. Forrest Knox, R-Altoona, said the bill prevents universities from discriminating against religious groups.

“This is an anti-discrimination bill,” he said.

“I believe this bill will protect a student group that is, say, Baha’i, on the KU campus or elsewhere. And I think that’s what we’re interested in this country … ensuring that the university cannot discriminate against a certain type of student organization,” Knox said.

Last year, the Kansas House passed a different religious freedom bill that would have allowed public or private employees to refuse to serve same-sex couples based on their beliefs about marriage. That bill caused international backlash and died in the Senate.

Senate Vice President Jeff King, R-Independence, said Fitzgerald’s bill is much narrower than the bill last year.

“This is not a bill that is discriminating against any entity, but allowing religious groups the freedom to have members of that group be followers of that faith,” King said. “This is an extremely narrow bill that wants to make sure those that practice faiths are free to organize with others of the same faith.”

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the gay-rights group that led opposition to last year’s bill, said that this bill gives students groups a license to discriminate.

“To have that paid for by the taxpayers is absolutely wrong,” he said. “We’re giving college kids a license to behave badly in the name of religion.”

Reach Bryan Lowry at 785-296-3006 or blowry@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @BryanLowry3.

How they voted

The Senate approved SB 175 by a 30-8 vote.

All south-central Kansas senators voted for the bill, except for Oletha Faust-Goudeau, D-Wichita, and Carolyn McGinn, R-Sedgwick.

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