TOPEKA – A proposal in Kansas for protecting religious groups on public college campuses that want to restrict memberships to like-minded believers is advancing in the Republican-dominated Legislature, and a leading gay-rights advocate calls it “a license to discriminate.”
The state Senate approved the measure Thursday on a 30-8 vote, sending it to the House. Supporters say it allows groups to require members to adhere to common, sincerely held beliefs without having to take in non-believers.
The easy progress of this year’s bill contrasts with the rocky path for another measure pursued by some religious groups and lawmakers last year.
The bill last year was designed to allow individuals, groups and businesses to refuse for religious reasons to participate in same-sex marriages, but critics said it allowed widespread discrimination against gays and lesbians, even by public officials. It passed the House but died in the Senate.
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The bill this year would prevent state universities, community colleges and technical colleges from refusing to recognize or denying campus resources to religious groups that limit their memberships. Even supporters acknowledged the bill would require campuses to recognize and provide resources to religious groups that reject gays and lesbians as members.
“We’re talking about the ability of a group to define itself and to adhere to its own message,” Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, said during the chamber’s debate.
Sen. David Haley, a Kansas City Democrat, called the measure “offensive,” and Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, the state’s leading gay-rights group, deemed it “insane.”
Witt argued the bill would sanction many forms of discrimination and raised the recent case of a University of Oklahoma fraternity disbanded after members were caught on video engaging in a racist chant.
“It’s a license to discriminate against anybody and claim religion as a shield,” Witt said after the Senate’s vote.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that universities can adopt anti-bias policies requiring religious groups seeking recognition or resources to accept anyone who wants to join.
Supporters of the Kansas bill said they’re worried that “all-comers” policies might be imposed on Kansas campuses, when religious groups generally have been left alone. They said the goal is to prevent such groups from being punished for following their beliefs.
“This is an anti-discrimination bill,” said Sen. Forrest Knox, an Altoona Republican.
Kansas lawmakers’ debate comes as the U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry everywhere, with a ruling expected by late June. The Kansas Constitution prohibits same-sex marriages, but the courts are allowing them in a majority of the state’s counties.
Despite that political backdrop, senators largely avoided talking about how the bill would protect religious groups that don’t want openly gay and lesbian members. Fitzgerald said after the debate that religious groups supporting gay rights would be protected under the bill as well.