- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) - A Republican legislator warned Thursday that Kansas risks the same sort of national backlash as Indiana and Arkansas if lawmakers pass a proposal aimed at protecting college religious groups, but a GOP colleague said heeding such concerns would be “catering to the mob.”

The Kansas House Federal and State Affairs Committee approved a bill designed to give religious groups on state university campuses more control over their membership. The committee’s debate touched on the criticism lawmakers in the two other states have faced for passing broader religious objections measures described by some business leaders and groups as anti-gay.

Gay-rights supporters in Kansas contend its bill, which passed the Senate two weeks ago, would protect campus religious groups from being sanctioned for barring gay and lesbians as members - or limiting membership based on race, ethnicity or national origin. Backers of the bill say it protects students’ freedoms of association and worship.

The House committee’s 12-10 vote sending the bill to the House floor signaled a possible wider split among Republicans in Kansas than in Arkansas and Indiana, which are among more than a dozen states where religious objections proposals have been introduced this year. Republicans hold 18 of the panel’s 23 seats, and six joined four Democrats in voting against the bill.

GOP Rep. Stephanie Clayton, of Overland Park, predicted Kansas would face an outcry and boycott threats.

“Kansas does not need anything like that happening to damage our reputation,” said Clayton, who voted against the bill.

But Rep. Dick Jones, a Topeka Republican, said if legislators rewrite the bill or refuse to pass it because of what’s happened elsewhere, “We’re catering to the mob.”

“I get the feeling that if we took religious organizations out of this and put in gay organizations, we’d be falling all ourselves to pass it, so I say we pass it,” he said. “I’m not going to run away from somebody’s misunderstanding of the bill and trying to make a national issue out of it. This doesn’t hurt anybody.”

The Kansas measure is significantly different from new religious objections policies approved by lawmakers in Arkansas and Indiana, which focus on limiting broader government action against individuals, groups and businesses that say they’re acting in line with their religious beliefs.

Under the Kansas proposal, state universities, community colleges and technical colleges could not sanction religious groups over requirements that members adhere to the group’s sincerely held beliefs or “religious standards of conduct.” Colleges couldn’t refuse to recognize a group or deny it space or other benefits available to other student groups.

The bill doesn’t mention gays and lesbians and is written broadly enough to cover, for example, Christian groups that refuse to allow Muslims to formally join, or Muslim groups that disallow Christians. Supporters said it also would allow groups to oust leaders if they, for example, failed to heed rules against heterosexual sex outside of marriage.

Committee Chairman Steve Brunk, a Wichita Republican who supports the bill, said a campus religious group often serves as a church for students.

“It’s completely inappropriate, to me, for government through its organizational structure - that being the university - to tell an individual church who their membership is or who their membership cannot be,” Brunk said.

Equality Kansas, the state’s leading gay-rights group, has called the bill a “license to discriminate,” and the American Civil Liberties Union said it would force colleges to provide taxpayer- or student-financed support to groups that discriminate.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that universities can adopt anti-bias policies requiring religious groups seeking recognition or resources to accept anyone who wants to join.

The Kansas Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s higher education system, has an anti-discrimination policy for student groups that includes sexual orientation. But the policy also says, “The right of organizations to establish standards for membership is acknowledged.”

“It works,” said Rep. Steve Becker, a Buhler Republican. “We need to stay out of it.”



Bill on college religious groups: https://bit.ly/ICCSmb .


Follow John Hanna on Twitter at https://twitter.com/apjdhanna .

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