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Gay-Exclusion Law Advances in Kansas

TOPEKA, Kan. (CN) - The Kansas Legislature on Thursday moved closer to approving a bill that will allow religious groups to ban gay and lesbian students but still receive state-funded benefits at public universities.

Senate Bill 175 , approved 30-8 by the state Senate on March 19 and 12-10 by the House Committee on Federal and State Affairs on Thursday, will be sent to the full House, which has adjourned until April 29.

The bill, introduced in February by state Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, R-Tonganoxie, would prevent public universities from withholding funding or use of campus facilities from any religious student association that denies membership to students based on the organization's "sincerely held religious beliefs."

Oklahoma enacted a similar law last summer.

Fitzgerald and other legislators drafted SB 175 in response to universities in other states that established "all comers" policies, which allow colleges to bar student religious associations from using campus facilities for meetings if they withhold membership from students with antithetical beliefs.

The legislation would prohibit Kansas universities from imposing a similar policy on student religious organizations, Fitzgerald told Courthouse News.

Kansas Board of Regents policy prohibits discrimination by public university student groups based on age, race, color, religion, sex, marital status, national origin, physical handicap or disability, status as a Vietnam Era Veteran and sexual orientation. Exceptions apply to fraternities and sororities, which can exclude membership based on gender.

The bill eliminate restrictions on student association funding and benefits when it comes to excluding members - but only in the case of religious groups.

Under the bill, if a group's religious beliefs ban women from membership, the group would continue receiving the same state-funded university benefits offered to non-discriminatory student associations. University funding and benefits would also go to religious groups that ban gay and lesbian students.

Although SB 175 makes no mention of gays or lesbians, it resembles broader religious-freedom laws passed recently in Arkansas and Indiana. Those laws, which allow business owners to refuse service to customers based on religious beliefs, drew outrage from businesses and citizens who claimed the legislation targets homosexuals.

Micah Kubic, president of ACLU of Kansas, called SB 175 part of a nationwide trend of laws conceived or adopted under the "broad rubric of religious freedom."

"Proponents say that discrimination is not the intent, and I believe them, but the plain language of the bill would permit discrimination, and I think that's problematic," Kubic said.

The bill's proponents say it's needed to protect religious groups from being forced to include disagreeable members.

In earlier testimony, Fitzgerald proposed a scenario involving "Satanists trying to take over a Christian group at a university."

Michael Schuttloffel, executive director of the Kansas Catholic Conference, called SB 175 "common-sense legislation" in written testimony. Without the law, universities could require the Evangelical Student Association to allow a non-believer to become its president, or lose official recognition and use of campus facilities, he said.

"The simple truth is that universities use these policies to punish students whose beliefs they do not like," Schuttloffel said.

Universities that stripped religious groups of official recognition, or threatened to do so, for requiring members to embrace their beliefs include State University of New York-Buffalo, University of Michigan, and the 23-campus California State University system, which last year revoked the official club status of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship when the organization refused to sign a nondiscrimination policy.

Opponents say SB 175 opens the door to publicly funded discrimination.

The bill would give special rights to religious groups that are not given to other groups, said Thomas Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas, an LGBT organization.

"This bill is creating a big exception to allow discrimination on any characteristic. It can be national origin, gender, or people who walk funny, as long as they say it's based on religion, Witt said.

"LGBT is a part of it but it's much bigger than that. These so-called religious freedom bills are all about denying, refusing and excluding."

Fitzgerald, a conservative Republican and outspoken opponent of same-sex marriage, scoffs at the premise that SB 175 targets gay and lesbian students. He said the bill is simply designed to protect religious groups from discrimination.

"I think they're looking for attention and trying to be relevant," Fitzgerald said of critics. "I think it's kind of ludicrous for anybody to take that seriously."

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