Politics & Government

Wichita State students speak out on campus religious freedom bill

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Wichita State University student leaders want Gov. Sam Brownback to veto a bill that would enable campus religious groups to restrict their membership.

SB 175, which passed the Kansas Legislature this past week, would prevent public universities from taking any action against student religious groups that restrict their membership to adherents of the faith.

Supporters say the legislation protects groups’ religious freedom, but opponents say the bill would enable discrimination to take place on taxpayer-funded campuses and makes universities vulnerable to lawsuits.

“The way that it is worded will allow these organizations to discriminate based on race, based on sexual orientation, and there’s nothing that the university can do about it,” said Joseph Shepard, the student body president at WSU. “And if the university does do something about it, they can be sued by these organizations.”

WSU’s student body government passed a resolution opposing the bill last year after it had passed the Kansas Senate. The issue had been dormant for a year until the Kansas House revived and passed the bill last week despite concerns from the Kansas Board of Regents and universities.

Shepard, a senior studying criminal justice and psychology, noted that the bill was passed the week that WSU was on spring break, preventing students from mounting the same opposition this year.

Brownback’s office said he would review the legislation thoroughly before making a decision on the bill, but most lawmakers expect him to sign it based on his previous calls for the state to enact stronger religious protections.

The Board of Regents has said the bill could endanger federal financial aid dollars by allowing discrimination of protected classes.

Taben Azad, secretary of the Muslim Student Association at WSU, questioned the need for the bill.

It’s not our place to turn away people.

Taben Azad, WSU Muslim Student Association

“It’s not our place to turn away people,” Azad said, explaining that all students are welcome to attend the association’s meetings regardless of whether they’re practicing Muslims.

“I don’t think religious organizations have even shown that this is something they’ve desired,” said Azad, a senior studying mechanical engineering who also serves in the student senate.

However, supporters say the bill offers needed protections for religious groups.

Kristen Carr, a student leader with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at the University of Kansas, said her evangelical group welcomes people of all faiths and atheists at their meetings, but that the group wants to make sure its leaders “reflect the purpose” of the organization.

“Sometimes we will have non-Christians ask to become officers. It happens. … These people are definitely more than welcome (to attend),” said Carr, a senior studying microbiology. “We just believe as an organization we should be able to have leaders who believe in the things that we’re teaching, such as people who lead Bible studies should believe that the Bible is true.”

Lawmakers who support the bill have previously claimed that without it atheists or Satanists might be able to take over campus Christian groups.

“I don’t think there would be people like that that would have any kind of malicious intent or anything, but I think it’s important just to be able to protect our values,” said Carr, who called it common sense that the group’s leaders would have to adhere to the Christian faith.

I think it’s important just to be able to protect our values.

Kristen Carr, KU InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

InterVarsity lost its official recognition on California State University campuses in 2014 when it was determined that the group failed to adhere to the university system’s “all-comers” policy. The wording of the policy has since changed, and the group regained its official standing on 19 California State campuses in June of 2015.

The controversy in California is one reason for the push to adopt the law in Kansas as a way to prevent universities in the state from enforcing similar policies.

Michael Schuttloffel, executive director for the Kansas Catholic Conference, one of the organizations pushing for the law, said the bill maintains the status quo in Kansas. He dismissed the controversy over the legislation as “pure politics.”

“At universities everywhere, fraternities exclude women and sororities exclude men. Sports teams exclude the athletically challenged,” Schuttloffel said in an e-mail. “Drama clubs exclude those who can’t act. Yet all of the religious campus groups we have ever heard of allow anyone to join and attend. They only want to be able to control their leadership.”

However, the bill clearly states that religious groups can enforce the adherence requirements for “leaders or members” rather than applying to leadership roles only. It says that groups can require members to comply with the organization’s “sincere religious standards of conduct.”

Opponents say this is broad enough to allow for discrimination based on a variety of reasons.

“The way this bill is written it goes way beyond the ability to discriminate against gay students. It includes pretty much anybody and everybody,” said Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, a gay rights organization that opposed the bill.

The bill passed the same month that the Missouri Senate approved a ballot proposal to allow wedding-related businesses to refuse same-sex couples on religious grounds. Similar legislation passed the Kansas House two years ago but failed to become law.

“The so-called attack on religious freedom is a myth,” Witt said about this type of legislation. “It’s not happening. It’s like the ‘war on Christmas.’ 

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3