Politics & Government

Calif. bans state travel to Kansas over LGBT discrimination concerns

A California policy raises the question of whether teams from that state will travel to Wichita in 2018, when the city is scheduled to host a round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.
A California policy raises the question of whether teams from that state will travel to Wichita in 2018, when the city is scheduled to host a round of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. File photo

California has banned state-funded travel to Kansas after determining that the Sunflower State is one of four in the nation with laws that it views as discriminatory toward gay people.

The policy could prevent public universities in California from scheduling sporting events with Kansas teams and raises the question of whether teams will travel to Wichita in 2018, when the city is scheduled to host two rounds of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament.

“California must take action to avoid supporting or financing discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people,” states the California law, which was passed in September.

The law prohibits state agencies and universities from using state dollars to pay for travel to states with laws it views as discriminating against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. There are a few exceptions, such as for law enforcement purposes.

Kansas is on the travel prohibition list because of a 2016 law that enabled college campus religious groups to require that members adhere to their religious beliefs and standards. That law was crafted partially in response to a controversy in California that occurred when a Christian student group lost recognition on California State University campuses for failure to comply with an “all comers” non-discrimination policy in 2014.

Other states on the list are North Carolina, Tennessee and Mississippi.

Opponents of the Kansas law, which took effect July 1, previously raised concern that it would allow for discrimination based on race, sexual orientation and gender on taxpayer-funded campuses. Supporters said it was necessary to protect religious freedom on campus.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Leavenworth, who sponsored the Kansas legislation, said the California attorney general’s office misunderstood the purpose of the law. “It’s to prevent discrimination,” he said.

“I think there’s more evidence now that when we build the wall we need to build it up the California border,” Fitzgerald added, referring to President Trump’s plan to build a wall along the border with Mexico.

College athletics

The biggest impact of the California law will likely be in college athletics.

“It’s the whole state of California. They aren’t going to let them travel on state funds,” said Bob Hanson, president of the Greater Area Wichita Sports Commission.

Claire Doan, spokeswoman for the University of California system, said in an e-mail that if a university’s athletic team had committed to participate in an event before Jan. 1, 2017, “then it’s permissible to use state funds. However, if a contract was entered on or after that, then state funds cannot be used for travel.”

She said individual universities will use these guidelines to determine whether to participate in NCAA events held in Kansas.

Josh Rupprecht, spokesman for UCLA’s athletic department, said it does not rely on state funds for its sports teams, but that “moving forward, the athletic department will not schedule future games in states that fail to meet the standards established by the new law.”

He said in an e-mail that UCLA is “committed to promoting and protecting equity, diversity and inclusion.”

Asked whether this would prevent UCLA from traveling to Wichita for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2018, Rupprecht said in a second e-mail that should “the NCAA assign us to a tournament bracket in a state affected by AB 1887, barring unforeseen circumstances, we will not deny our student-athletes the right to participate in postseason play.”

The NCAA requires cities bidding to host championship events to fill out a non-discrimination questionnaire. One of the questions on that form is whether the city or state has laws on the books that allow for the refusal of service to any person.

Asked if California’s listing of Kansas as a prohibited state would jeopardize Wichita’s ability to host events, the NCAA responded in an e-mail: “Currently, North Carolina is the only state where the NCAA has removed championships due to state discrimination laws.” It did not elaborate.

The NCAA pulled out of hosting championships in North Carolina last year after that state’s Legislature passed a law governing transgender people’s access to bathrooms. The bathroom law was also the basis for California’s ban on state-funded travel to North Carolina.

Some Kansas lawmakers have proposed similar legislation here.

‘Religious liberty matters’

Gov. Sam Brownback’s office reiterated his support for the Kansas law in a statement.

“Religious liberty is a bedrock American principle and part of the essence of who we are as a people — The Campus Religious Freedom Bill protects this right. This bill passed with veto-proof majorities in both chambers and had bi-partisan support. Governor Brownback represents the people of Kansas, and religious liberty matters to our citizens,” said Melika Willoughby, the governor’s communication director, in a statement.

Willoughby’s statement that the bill had bipartisan support is incorrect. Only one Democrat, in the House, voted for it. The bill passed with a veto-proof majority in the Senate but fell three votes shy of a veto-proof majority in the House.

Rep. Brandon Whipple, D-Wichita, said he opposed the bill because he thought it would lead to unintended consequences, and he saw California’s travel restriction as proof of that.

“Any opportunity to grow our economy with money from outside Kansas is something we want, so if we have bills that are preventing that, then that is a problem,” Whipple said.

Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading LGBT rights organization, echoed this point.

“Discrimination is bad for business. And Gov. Brownback wants to bring business to Kansas, but he cheered on and signed a bill that’s running business out,” Witt said. “If California’s banned official travel, there’s business right there that has been lost to the state.”

Playing California

UCLA plays teams from Kansas infrequently. Its swimming team hosted the University of Kansas earlier this month. The last time it faced off against KU in basketball was in 2015 at the Maui Invitational Tournament in Hawaii, which resulted in a 92-73 Jayhawks victory.

Both Wichita State University and KU played home games against another California state university, Long Beach State, this basketball season.

Wichita State’s men’s baseball schedule for 2017 includes three away games against California Polytechnic State University. The Shockers had hosted Cal Poly for three games the previous season before the California State Assembly had passed the new law.

Wichita State’s women’s softball team has out-of-state games against the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, Santa Barbara on its 2017 schedule.

Micah Kubic, executive director of the Kansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, compared the situation to the fallout that North Carolina faced after passing the bathroom bill.

“Folks all over the country said ‘those are not our values,’ so refused to travel there, boycotted the state,” Kubic said. “I think this is a similar situation. I think you’ll probably see other organizations say that they don’t want to participate in discriminatory practices and fund them with their tax dollars. I would say this is probably the first of many … and that’s one reason why we warned against the bill in the first place.”

Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, one of the main groups that pushed for the Kansas law, dismissed California’s restriction on official travel as a publicity stunt and said seven other states also had laws similar to the Kansas law that protect campus religious groups.

“Maybe in California they do not believe that Jewish students should get to be in charge of the Jewish student association, or that Baptist students should be able to ensure that the Baptist student union stands for the things that Baptists believe in, but fortunately California does not make law in Kansas,” Schuttloffel said. “We have no interest in importing California’s anti-religious intolerance. And frankly if UCLA is scared to play KU in basketball, they should just come out and say it.”

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3

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