Kansas House Advances Campus Religious Freedom Bill


Rep. Brandon Whipple

By John Celock

Following a series of unsuccessful maneuvers to amend or kill the bill, the Kansas House advanced legislation Tuesday for campus religious freedom.

Supporters say that the bill – which has passed in seven other states – would provide protections for student religious groups, while opponents say that the bill would allow for religious groups to discriminate with taxpayer funds. The passage of the bill came after a Democratic legislative leader proposed a series of amendments related to banning discrimination, while a moderate Republican tried to send the bill back for more legal vetting.

“What the bill does for the members of campus organizations, is it allows an opportunity to have a membership policy for leaders to be of the faith that the particular group may be,” Rep. Craig McPherson (R-Overland Park), who was carrying the bill, told his colleagues.

McPherson said that the bill – which passed the state Senate last year – would clarify the law for state universities to have rules in place regarding who can be leaders in certain groups, noting that it would allow a Christian group to require leaders to be Christians. McPherson and other supporters – including House Judiciary Committee Vice Chairman Charles Macheers (R-Shawnee) – noted that problems have occurred at colleges in other states regarding rules from religious student groups about who could be leaders.

The bill would also allow for religious student groups to meet at campus buildings.

Supporters also noted issues that have occurred in Kansas at Washburn University law school in the past that relate to the purpose of the bill. McPherson and other supporters said that the Supreme Court’s all comers policy allows for anyone to join a group, but this would clarify who would lead. Among the scenarios the supporters outlined were a Muslim seeking to lead a Jewish related group or a white supremacist seeking to lead an African-American student group.

“This is a simple bill, it doesn’t have to be confused,” Rep. Dick Jones (R-Topeka). “It is about a group of like minded people getting together without some shill coming in and trying to take over the organization.”

Opponents said that bill would promote discrimination. During committee hearings, the bill was opposed by the American Civil Liberties Union, the National Organization for Women and the Mainstream Coalition. The bill has also been opposed by student governments at the University of Kansas, Kansas State University and Wichita State University. During the floor debate opponents noted that Kansas State University leaders had sent a letter to lawmakers raising questions about the bill. McPherson said that KState’s objections could be answered.

Rep. Stephanie Clayton (R-Overland Park), a moderate Republican, unsuccessfully tried to send the bill to the House Judiciary Committee, saying it needed to be vetted by a committee dominated by lawyers. The bill has previously passed the House Federal and State Affairs Committee, on which Clayton serves. Not all members of either committee are lawyers, with more lawyers serving on the judiciary panel.

“We have heard from our regents institutions that they have concerned. I heard from business groups that they have concerns,” Clayton said. “We don’t want to open a Pandora’s Box today.”

Supporters said the bill received a thorough vetting in the Federal and State Affairs Committee and did not need another review by the Judiciary Committee. They also noted that the bill had easily passed the Senate and also received unanimous approval in the Oklahoma Legislature. Clayton responded to the comments about other chambers and states.

“Ladies and gentleman of the body this is the Kansas House, not the Senate and not the Oklahoma Legislature,” Clayton said.

Federal and State Affairs Committee Chairwoman Jan Pauls (R-Hutchinson), a former judge who also serves on the Judiciary Committee, said she wanted to see the bill have an “open debate” on the floor Tuesday and did not need more committee vetting. She said that a move to send the bill back to committee would likely kill it.

“Even though I think it would be delightful to have additional hearings in Judiciary. This would in effect be sending it back to kill the bill this session,” Pauls said. “I think it is sad that people don’t like to vote on issues that come before us on general orders.”

Pauls used similar language last week in an attempt to defeat a move to send a bill related to refugees back to her committee. While Clayton’s move on Tuesday was defeated, the refugee was sent back to committee.

House Democratic Agenda Chairman Brandon Whipple (D-Wichita) took to the floor in an unsuccessful attempt to offer amendments to mandate that the campus groups could not discriminate against anyone. In the first amendment – which failed 36-84 – Whipple specifically cited various groups not to discriminate against including the LGBT population – which is not a protected class under Kansas law. Whipple’s second amendment – which failed on a voice vote – was broadly worded not citing any class.

“There is no greater injustice than discrimination,” Whipple said. “If we are going to provide freedom we must be just in doing so.”

Pauls, who has long opposed LGBT equality measures, questioned Whipple on the LGBT wording in his first amendment and why he was including LGBT. She noted that it is not a protected class and asked if Whipple was trying to make them a protected class. Whipple said the amendment covered campus groups only and not the entire state. Under questioning from Pauls, Whipple said he did not know about the overall issue in the state.

Whipple then questioned Pauls about whether she would support the amendment if the amendment did not mention LGBT specifically. Pauls declined to answer Whipple’s question, saying the rules did not allow him to question her when she was questioning him on the amendment. The presiding officer also reminded Whipple about that House rules prohibit asking how a lawmaker will vote during debate.

The exchange between Pauls and Whipple was the second floor confrontation between the two over religion in less than a week. Last week, Whipple unsuccessfully offered two amendments to the refugee bill – one of which dealt with religious groups – where Pauls interrogated Whipple over his intent and wanted a yes or no answer, which Whipple declined to provide, saying he would answer in his own way.

Pauls did though address the intent of Whipple’s question in remarks to the House.

“I would think the body would note my response if it was proper for me to answer that question,” she said. “I have not supported this.”

Whipple’s first amendment led to something of a Bible study on the floor with Whipple and Rep. Randy Powell (R-Olathe) both reading from the Bible during the debate. Whipple read from Leviticus 19:9-10, where he said the passage related to the need to provide fairness and justice.

“When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not real to the very edges of your field, or father the gleanings of your harvest,” Whipple read from the Bible. “You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the Lord your God.”

Powell then said that Bible needed to be looked at as a whole and not in one section. While Whipple focused on the Old Testament, Powell turned to the New Testament and read from the First Letter of Paul to Timothy, where he laid out the qualifications for leaders in Timothy 3. In that letter, Paul wrote that leaders must be “above reproach” and show themselves “not to be a recent convert.” He said that the passage laid out what is expected of leaders.

Whipple, who has established himself as a leading House Democratic voice on theology, later noted that he did not believe the passage Powell read from applied to him or others. He noted that he was not trying to be an elder.

“I am not an elder, I am a sinner,” Whipple said, noting that people cannot meet what was read by Powell and that he goes to church to confess his sins. “I have sinned in my heart and soul.”

Whipple also said that he believed all House members wanted to help the state.

“Everyone in here want to do good,” he said. “That’s the goal of this amendment.”

In offering his second amendment, Whipple said that he did not want to create a special class and was willing to offer a broadly worded version of non-discrimination without naming specific groups. Pauls questioned Whipple again asking why he had a second amendment to go so soon after the first. Whipple said he was planning ahead and was guessing that his first amendment could have failed.

Pauls said that with the amendment having passed in other states in similar language, it was important for the House to vote down Whipple. She said that Whipple’s intent was not what he said.

“His purpose is to destroy the underlying bill,” Pauls said of Whipple.

Democrats defended Whipple with House Majority Whip Ed Trimmer (D-Winfield) saying a vote against Whipple “means you are for discrimination.” House Democratic Policy Chairman John Wilson (D-Lawrence) told the House that sexual orientation is not a choice but rather by birth. He also said the Legislature should not interfere in student affairs.

“Students don’t need us to meddle in their affairs and start fights where they don’t exist,” Wilson said.

In final debate over the bill, Rep. Chuck Weber (R-Wichita), a new member of the House, talked about the “silent majority” who has “same sex attraction” and that the “homosexual lobby” is advocating for them to join them, while others are struggling with a choice. He said he did not want to force anyone to choose. Weber also noted that the bill is not discriminatory in nature.

“This bill does not force anyone to do anything they don’t want to do,” Weber said. “This is not discrimination, it’s protection from discrimination.”

Whipple disagreed noting that lawmakers should look towards history.

“History has taught us that religion has been used to do unjust things,” he said.