TOPEKA — Gov. Sam Brownback capped two years of legislative debate by signing a bill Tuesday forbidding public colleges and universities in Kansas from compelling student religious organizations to accept members or leaders who don’t share the group’s core beliefs.
The bill approved by the Senate in 2015 and the House this session was developed because of apprehension higher education administrators could apply “accept-all-comers” rules membership and leadership rules to campus faith organizations under a threat of loss of school funding. The protection of religious freedom in the bill doesn’t apply to private colleges or universities.
Brownback said many people who participated in formation of the United States came to this continent seeking religious freedom.
“I’m pleased to sign Senate Bill 175 today, the campus religious freedom bill, insuring that college students may also enjoy this bedrock American principle,” the governor said. “Senate Bill 175 preserves intellectual diversity and religious liberty by allowing student clubs and organizations to determine the membership of their own groups.”
“This bill bars post-secondary educational institutions from denying benefits to religious student organizations on the grounds of the requirements of their religious beliefs,” Brownback said. “Critics of the bill believe that it makes it easier for student organizations to discriminate, but that is inaccurate.”
He said it was a narrowly targeted and responsibly balanced bill that would serve interests of higher education institutions in Kansas by supporting the desire of like-minded people to assemble.
Opponents of the legislation, including the Great Plains chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, contended the bill would provide student religious groups legal authority to engage in religious discrimination at higher education institutions.
An attorney with the Kansas Board of Regents, which has jurisdiction over public higher education in the state, questioned whether the legislation would invite lawsuits.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the past that universities must require membership in campus groups to be open to all.
Advocates of Senate Bill 175 didn’t provide recent examples of religious conflict among administrators and students in Kansas, but pointed to a 2004 dispute at Washburn University in Topeka. That case involved a lawsuit filed by a Christian group regarding recognition of the Bible, rather than the Book of Mormon, as the word of God.
Rep. Craig McPherson, R-Overland Park, said Kansas students deserved the right to maintain associations based on their sincerely held religious beliefs without fear of subversion by peers who adhered to conflicting religious views.
It would be outrageous for administrators at a public university or college to undermine the religious liberty of students, he said.
“The idea that individuals can meet in the public facilities on college campus really is a long-held tradition,” McPherson said. “We can freely assemble and particularly assemble for religious beliefs. We’re just protecting that tradition with this bill.”