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Tim Schultz: Law safeguards campus religious groups

As a graduate of Kansas State University and the president of an organization that works to protect the religious rights of people of all faiths, I’m proud that Kansas has a new law protecting the rights of student religious groups (March 16 Eagle).

Senate Bill 175, which Gov. Sam Brownback signed Tuesday, is a commonsense solution to a real problem.

In recent years, universities in more than two dozen states have punished campus religious groups with loss of official recognition and campus access. What is the “crime” committed by these groups? Requiring that their leaders share in the group’s religious identity.

Though this punishment is issued in the name of “nondiscrimination,” it is selectively applied. No public university has punished sororities for “gender discrimination” for insisting that their leaders be women, or Republican clubs for insisting that their leaders be Republicans. However, colleges have eliminated Christian groups for insisting that their leaders be Christians.

And though these punishments are often defended on the basis that “religious student groups take taxpayer money,” the truth is that the money at issue is merely redistributed from the pool of fees that all students pay. It is only religious groups that are denied their fair share of fees and the use of facilities.

Most campus religious groups are organized to serve their fellow students, and all are welcome to attend their meetings. They, therefore, have a high percentage of attendees who do not (yet) share their core religious commitments. For example, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a ministry I attended while at K-State, estimates that 25 percent of its attendees are not Christians.

Inevitably, some ask to be considered for leadership positions. Campus ministries should be able to gently say “no” to these requests, just as a synagogue should be able to decline an interview with a Christian applying to be a rabbi.

In 2004, the Christian Legal Society at Washburn University’s law school faced sanctions when it insisted that a Bible study leader actually believe in the authority of the Bible. The case was settled, but only after protracted conflict and litigation threats.

The bill signed by Brownback ensures this will never again happen in Kansas. Because of this new law, public universities will have the same policy as seven other states, including Ohio, Virginia and Oklahoma.

True diversity means that student religious groups should be welcomed and applauded, not shunned and kicked off campus.

Tim Schultz is president of the 1st Amendment Partnership in Washington, D.C.