Controversial bill on student religious groups to have hearing today

A hearing is scheduled Monday morning in a Kansas House Committee on a controversial bill that would allow college student religious groups or clubs to exclude students who do not share the religious beliefs of the group.

Proponents of the bill, Senate Bill 175, say it would prevent discrimination against these student religious organizations, while opponents of the bill say it would force public universities to fund student organizations that discriminate. The hearing is scheduled at 9 a.m. in the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs.

The laws currently say student religious organizations can meet at public universities and colleges, and receive public funding, said Micah W. Kubic, executive director of the ACLU of Kansas. But most public universities have non-discrimination policies in place in order to be registered or receive funding, he said. The groups cannot exclude people of color, women and particular groups, he said.

The proposed bill gets rid of non-discrimination policies that apply to religious groups, Kubic said. Currently these non-discrimination policies apply to any student group, not just religious ones.

If these non-discrimination policies are lifted for religious groups, the groups then would be free to discriminate and exclude racial and ethnic groups, women, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students, or anyone else that a student group decides to exclude on the basis of religious belief, according to Kubic.

“The issue at stake in SB 175 is not whether student organizations are free to believe and associate as they like – they are. Instead, the issue is whether student organizations have a right to be publicly funded to operate in a discriminatory manner. They should not,” Kubic said.

Kubic said the Supreme Court ruled that states could have non-discrimination policies, which did not violate the right of free religion. He said this legislation is thought to be a way to change the laws to get around the court decision.

The bill would not apply to churches that rent space at colleges to hold services, just to student religious groups that meet at universities and their public funding, he said. The bill also doesn’t apply to political or other student groups at universities, Kubic said, but “once you go down the path of excluding people, it’s a lot easier to exclude additional people” in future legislation, Kubic believes.

Proponents of the bill believe they are defending student religious groups against discrimination.

Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-5th Dist., who carried this bill on the Senate floor, stated, “Interestingly, one senator after lavishly praising a sorority with which his family had been long affiliated and which has had the highest standards then attacked the very thought that a group upholding a set of ideals could possibly define their own membership based upon adherence to those ideals. The irony was lost on him entirely.

“It is clear that these opponents are not against student groups that define themselves. Rather, it is against religion,” Sen. Fitzgerald, whose district includes part of western Wyandotte County, continued. “They are offended that anyone would practice a religion in the public square. They seek to twist our founding documents to become a guarantee from religion rather than of religion.

“Sadly, there are cases in other states where religious student organizations have been chased off campus and one case in Kansas several years ago that was resolved favorably,” Sen. Fitzgerald stated. “The furor of the few who oppose this common sense bill is indicative of the need for it. Kansans deserve and should have the protections of this bill, which is scheduled for a hearing in the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs Monday morning.”

The wording of the section 2 of Senate Bill 175, that contains the essential part of the change:

“Sec. 2. No postsecondary educational institution may take any action or enforce any policy that would deny a religious student association any benefit available to any other student association, or discriminate against a religious student association with respect to such benefit, based on such association’s requirement that the leaders or members of such association:
“(a) Adhere to the association’s sincerely held religious beliefs;
“(b) comply with the association’s sincerely held religious beliefs;
“(c) comply with the association’s sincere religious standards of conduct; or
“(d) be committed to furthering the association’s religious missions, as such religious beliefs, observance requirements, standards of conduct or missions are defined by the religious student association, or the religion on which the association is based.”
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