A small but growing number of Americans have been inching ever closer to the principle that even in a secular democratic society, their religious beliefs should exempt them from modern laws.
The most recent examples are laws regarding discrimination to promote a religious belief, ignoring federal laws curbing partisan electioneering from the pulpit and denying women the right to contraceptives through health care plans. These are serious issues multiplying across the nation.
Recently, Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback signed into law SB 175. The law allows religious clubs on college campus that receive funding from student fees to discriminate against students they wish to keep out of leadership positions because they may not meet the doctrinal beliefs of the club.
A supporter of this bill, Tim Schultz of the 1st Amendment Partnership in Washington, DC, argues religious clubs should be respected in their right to discriminate and choose whom they want in their leadership positions since sororities are female-only and universities do not punish sororities for “gender discrimination.”
Schultz’s example of singling out sororities claiming they discriminate and bar students is inaccurate. The government exempts sororities and fraternities from Title IX legislation that would prohibit gender exclusion. Religion is protected regarding the right to worship and believe one’s doctrines, but religions do not get a free pass to discriminate against others if they choose to take public support. Quite simply, the government is not bound to help harm others.
What Schultz failed to mention in his defense of these bills (which are popping up in state legislatures across America) is that their real target is the LGBT community. S.B. 175 stems from the Supreme Court decision of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez in 2011, a case challenging a policy at the University of California’s Hastings College of Law that held student clubs must accept any student regardless of their beliefs.
An on-campus branch of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) required its members to uphold certain codes of behavior and affirm a doctrinal statement of beliefs. These requirements effectively excluded LGBT students from membership. CLS was allowed to meet but was denied official recognition and funding due to its exclusionary rules. The group sued, but the high court held for Hastings.
Tom Witt, executive director of Equality Kansas argues, “The reality is the Brownback administration has spent six years trying to write discrimination into Kansas law. They’ve failed until now, and with SB175, they’re doing nothing but singling out college students with a bill that forces them to fund groups that actively discriminate against them.”
What’s often overlooked is that religious clubs on college campuses are free to organize and hold meetings until the cows come home. No one tried to stop CLS from meeting. What these groups really want is student funding and institutional support for their campus ministries. As Schultz declared in an op-ed in the Wichita Eagle March 22, the religious clubs want their “fair share” of student fees and to be officially recognized. It’s not that they can’t meet or hold their meetings or believe anything they want; they can. They want official status and manna from the university.
Religious clubs were denied those fees because many colleges have an “all-comers policy” and don’t allow recognized organizations to discriminate against students. If religious clubs wish to impose a religious litmus test, they have the freedom to do so, but at the end of the day, religious clubs cannot expect student fees to pay for their exclusionary policies.
Under a secular system based on the separation of church and state, the government is not supposed to subsidize private beliefs or permit discrimination against others, which is essentially what SB 175 is authorized to do.
Kansas’ new law does not safeguard religious freedom. It gives religious groups that favor discrimination the power and privilege to ignore secular law while expecting the government to enforce their beliefs. This is exactly what we would expect from groups that wish to usher in a theocracy and destroy the principle of separation of church and state in America.
Vickie Sandell Stangl is president of Great Plains Chapter of Americans United.