Politics & Government

Brownback signs bill allowing campus religious groups to restrict membership

Gov. Sam Brownback signed legislation Tuesday that will enable campus religious groups to restrict their membership to students that adhere to a religion’s tenets.

Opponents say SB 175 will enable discrimination to take place on publicly funded college campuses. Supporters say it offers religious groups needed protections at universities.

“Religious liberty is a part of the essence of who we are as a nation and state,” said Brownback, who was joined by lawmakers and lobbyists for the Kansas Catholic Conference and the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas.

“Critics of the bill believe that it makes it easier for student organizations to discriminate, but that is inaccurate,” Brownback said. “The bill only allows religious organizations to establish religious beliefs as qualification for membership. It does not cover all organizations for any and all membership requirements.”

The bill prohibits public universities from taking punitive actions against campus religious groups that require members or leaders to adhere to the group’s religious beliefs or “comply with the association’s sincere religious standards of conduct.”

The American Civil Liberties Union said last week that this language “encourages discrimination against Kansans – based on race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or any other category one can imagine” as long as it’s framed as a religious issue.

The Human Rights Campaign, a national gay-rights organization, called the bill “reckless and irresponsible” and said it would allow for discrimination of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender students on Kansas campuses.

Supporters point to cases around the country where student religious groups lost official recognition on university campuses for refusing to adopt an “all comers” policy. They say the bill is needed to ensure that doesn’t happen in Kansas.

“It’s important to note that different religious groups have very different beliefs. There are those groups that might want to oppose a person who would have a more traditional belief on marriage from being part of their group as well,” said Rep. Craig McPherson, R-Overland Park. “And I think it’s important to realize that this bill is not specific to any given religious belief but rather allows all religions this protection.”

The Kansas Board of Regents raised concerns that the bill could affect federal financial aid money for Kansas students by allowing discrimination against protected groups – a claim that supporters dispute – and Kansas State University has warned that the legislation will open universities to lawsuits.

“You can’t prevent litigation from happening … but I think it is pretty narrowly tailored and balanced to be able to try and address those issues that come up,” Brownback said.

Bryan Lowry: 785-296-3006, @BryanLowry3