By John Celock
Kansas lawmakers advanced a bill Thursday that would prohibit colleges in the state from withholding benefits to religious oriented clubs.
The state Senate voted 30-8 to give passage to the legislation which would allow religious oriented students groups to have the same rights, benefits and funding availability to non religious student groups. Conservatives praised the bill, saying it promoted non-discriminatory behavior, while liberal opposed the bill saying it would allow a religious group to set discriminatory policies based on religion.
“I want to let these organizations continue to operate as they have been,” Sen. Steve Fitzgerald (R-Leavenworth), the bill’s sponsor, said during floor debate. “We’re talking about the ability of the group to define itself and have it’s own message and meaning.’
Fitzgerald said that he wanted to prevent colleges from making religious student groups from leaving campus. He cited a case where the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship had to leave California State University after the college objected to the ICF rules that officers have a belief in Christ. He also cited a case where Vanderbilt University requires all student groups to accept any member and not be in ideological agreement with the group, a policy that includes religious groups.
Fitzgerald also cited a 2004 case at Washburn University Law School in Topeka where the student government originally did not recognize the Christian Legal Society.
In the legislation the benefits extended to the religious groups would include funding, university recognition and use of meeting space.
Opponents said that they were concerned the bill would promote discrimination on college campuses, saying that it would allow the groups to prohibit members who were not in agreement with the religion and its beliefs. Sen. Laura Kelly (D-Topeka) questioned Fitzgerald if that meant a Catholic student group would be allowed to prohibit members who were pro-choice or gay.
Fitzgerald talked about Catholic Church doctrine in responding to Kelly.
“There is such a thing as scandal. Scandal is what sets you against what you adhere to. It has special meaning in the Catholic faith and other faiths,” Fitzgerald. “If it rose to the level of scandal it would be a serious problem. It could go less than the measure of excommunication.”
Sen. Marci Francisco (D-Lawrence) said that she had concerns that a religious oriented group would start requiring members to behave a certain way within the group and outside of the group.
“I assume that religious groups share a religious creed or vision. My concern is that do the groups on campus adhere to those religious beliefs not just in the meetings but throughout activity on campus,” Francisco said. “It is not just that they have them but that they are facing a requirement share these things. I expect every organization to set rules for their meetings but I don’t expect them to set rules for the private lives of individuals.”
Fitzgerald said that he does not have any worried about privacy or if a student group would severe ties with a member for how they behave outside the group. He did note though that other non-campus groups do look at a member’s behavior outside the group.
“I know the Rotarians will throw you out if you are scandalous,” Fitzgerald said.
Sen. Mary Pilcher-Cook (R-Shawnee) told her colleagues that the bill would allow the student groups to continue operating as normal. She said that anyone would be allowed to join but in some cases a group wants to be able to control who is in charge of their group.
Pilcher-Cook suggested that a defeat of the bill would have larger consequences.
“It is so bad that we have to fight so hard for the to retain this liberty in this great state,” she said. “A vote against this bill would be a vote against allowing people to believe what they want to believe.”