Kansas bill would allow religious symbols on public land

The Kansas House is considering a bill that would allow the display of religious symbols on public lands, if the symbols are considered part of a community's history or heritage.

The bill, which was discussed Thursday before the Federal and State Affairs Committee in the Kansas House, was introduced in response to a controversy last summer when the Mennonite community of Buhler was threatened with a lawsuit because its city symbol contained a cross, The Wichita Eagle reported.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation claimed the city's official design violated the U.S. Constitution by favoring Christianity over other religions. Despite pleas from some residents to fight the threat, Buhler leaders took down the city symbol and replaced it with two similar ones on private land.

Rep. Don Schroeder, R-Hesston, told the committee Thursday that he believed religious displays like Buhler are constitutional.

"A lot of people talk about 'separation of church and state,' " Schroeder said. "That's not in the Constitution. However, there is an establishment clause, which says the government shall make no law regarding religion. It doesn't go the other way around; it doesn't say that religion cannot be involved in government."

A representative of the Great Plains chapter of the Americans United for Separation of Church and State disagreed with Schroeder's interpretation.

"Why would you have in the Constitution the fact that the government can't interfere with religion, but religion can interfere with the government?" said Vickie Sandell Stangl. "How does that protect the government? How does that make a stable society if it's not a two-way street? That does not create a stable society. That would be my answer to them on that."

The bill also would allow religious displays in public schools, although they must be connected to a course of study that "does not favor or disfavor any religion or religious belief," according to written testimony from Mark Hallman, spokesman for the Kansas Association of Public Schools.

House Majority Leader Arlen Siegfried, R-Olathe, said he expects the chamber to vote on the bill next week. He said he believes the bill is constitutional

"I do not believe that having a cross on a sign forces an atheist to be a believer," Siegfried says. "I just don't believe that."