Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback on Tuesday signed into law legislation that allows student groups at public colleges and universities to engage in discrimination without penalty — as long as the discrimination is rooted in “sincerely held religious beliefs.”
Brownback, who has a long history of outspoken opposition to LGBT equality, “didn’t sign the bill quietly,” reports The Washington Blade. “The governor signed the measure during a ceremony surrounded by lawmakers and lobbyists for the Kansas Catholic Conference and the Family Policy Alliance of Kansas.
In his remarks at the signing ceremony for Senate Bill 175, Brownback echoed claims advanced by the bill’s Republican sponsors, namely that the legislation protects “religious freedom” and ensures “that college students can also enjoy this bedrock American principle.”
The legislation, officially titled the Campus Religious Freedom Bill, prohibits schools from denying funds or space on campus to faith-based groups that make adherence to certain beliefs a condition of membership or leadership.
That means, for example, a Christian group would be allowed to reject a student who is Muslim, Jewish, or gay. A group could also reject someone who does not subscribe to the group’s theological convictions about, for instance, sex outside of marriage. Such rejections, as long as they are justified by “sincerely held religious beliefs,” could not be used as grounds for university officials to disband the group or deny on-campus meeting space, even if these rejections violate the school’s own nondiscrimination policy.
The Human Rights Campaign, which has spoken out against the legislation it calls “reckless and irresponsible,” notes that SB 175 is the first explicitly anti-LGBT bill to become law in any U.S. state this year, when more than 200 such bills have been introduced nationwide.
“The new law jeopardizes nondiscrimination policies that are already in place at many of Kansas’ educational institutions, including the Kansas Board of Regents and the University of Kansas,” an email to HRC supporters Wednesday read. “These policies require that student organizations which receive financial and other support from the school do not discriminate against students based on race, sex, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity. SB 175 blows a hole right through them — and allows discrimination against any of these groups if one cites a ‘religious belief’ as a justification.”
But during today’s signing ceremony, Brownback rejected that characterization, along with claims from opponents that suggest the law will open state-funded schools to costly litigation.
“Critics of the bill believe that it makes it easier for student organizations to discriminate, but that is inaccurate,” Brownback said, according to the Wichita Eagle. “The bill only allows religious organizations to establish religious beliefs as qualification for membership. It does not cover all organizations for any and all membership requirements.”