Kansas governor signs bill protecting religious liberty for student groups

Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback (R) signed a bill Tuesday that will allow religious student groups at public universities to restrict membership to those who share their beliefs.

Although it took nearly two years of legislative wrangling before the state House of Representatives passed SB 175 last week, The Hutchinson News reports that Brownback was more decisive, praising the bill for protecting the “bedrock American principle” of religious freedom as he signed it.

The law, which takes effect July 1, prohibits schools from taking punitive action against religious student organizations that impose membership requirements related to their stated beliefs, specifically authorizing such groups to require that members adhere to and comply with the association’s “sincerely held religious beliefs,” including any related standards of conduct, and giving the organizations significant leeway to define their religious missions as they wish.

[RELATED: Kansas passes religious liberty bill, LGBT activists claim discrimination]

“Senate Bill 175 preserves intellectual diversity and religious liberty by allowing student clubs and organizations to determine the membership of their own groups,” Brownback explained at the signing ceremony. “This bill bars post-secondary educational institutions from denying benefits to religious student organizations on the grounds of the requirements of their religious beliefs.”

Opponents, however, contend that the law enables discrimination, particularly against LGBT students whose lifestyles many religious groups consider sinful.

The Human Rights Campaign released a statement last week in which HRC President Chad Griffin declared that “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,” echoing sentiments expressed the day before by the Kansas ACLU.

“Critics of the bill believe that it makes it easier for student organizations to discriminate, but that is inaccurate,” Brownback retorted during the signing ceremony. “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.”

Despite losing the political battle, Micah Kubic, executive director of the Kansas ACLU, told the Associated Press that the organization is “very seriously” considering whether to challenge the new law in court, suggesting it might conflict with a Supreme Court ruling upholding the legitimacy of “all-comers” policies prohibiting clubs from rejecting any prospective member.

“You can’t prevent litigation from happening,” Brownback conceded when the issue arose, “but I think [the law] is pretty narrowly tailored and balanced to be able to try and address those issues that come up.”

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