Both houses of the Kansas legislature have passed a bill that would allow 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.”
The Kansas House of Representatives approved the measure, Senate Bill 175, on Tuesday, following the Senate’s approval in the 2015 session, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports. It now goes to Republican Gov. Sam Brownback for a signature or veto.
The bill would prevent schools from denying funds or space on campus to faith-based groups that make adherence to certain beliefs a condition of membership or leadership. Its supporters say it’s necessary to preserve the religious integrity of these organizations, while opponents say it’s a license to discriminate while receiving public financing.
The supporters, largely Republican, “indicated gays, Muslims or other outsiders could force their way into Christian organizations in ways that compromised religious liberty of core members,” the Capital-Journal reports.
“It is not discrimination to demand that their leaders actually be Christians,” Rep. John Whitmer said during debate on the bill, according to the paper. “Yes, they want them to agree with what that group stands for. Students do not lose their constitutional rights simply by stepping onto the public college or university campus.”
The American Civil Liberties Union’s Kansas affiliate has lobbied against the bill. “By supporting Senate Bill 175, the Kansas legislature has signaled that it not only tolerates but embraces and encourages discrimination against Kansans — based on race, gender, ethnicity, disability, sexual orientation, or any other category one can imagine,” executive director Micah Kubic told the Capital-Journal.
The Human Rights Campaign called on Brownback to veto the legislation. “SB 175 has nothing to do with American values or religious liberty and everything to do with blatant discrimination against tens of thousands of college students from all across the country,” said HRC president Chad Griffin in a press release.
The HRC pointed out that the Kansas Board of Regents, which governs public universities in the state, has adopted a broad nondiscrimination policy, and the University of Kansas has adopted its own. “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,” the press release noted. “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.”
The Board of Regents had warned that the legislation could put Kansas public universities at risk of losing federal funds, the Capital-Journal reports. Lawmakers defeated a proposal to add language to the bill that would require adherence to federal antidiscrimination law.
If Brownback, a Republican with an antigay record, signs the bill into law, it would be the first stand-alone piece of anti-LGBT legislation to become law this year, according to the HRC. Last year Brownback issued an executive order preventing faith-based organizations from losing state contracts or being otherwise penalized for opposition to marriage equality. He also rescinded a previous governor's LGBT-inclusive nondiscrimination policy regarding state employment, and he carried on a long fight to block marriage equality in Kansas.