Kansas Protects Religious Student Clubs: Rightful Selectivity is not Wrongful Discrimination

Kansas Protects Religious Student Clubs: Rightful Selectivity is not Wrongful Discrimination

Stanley Carlson-Thies, March 31, 2016

Should it be illegal for a Democratic lawmaker to reject as unqualified any Republican and Tea Partier who applies for work in their congressional office?  Wouldn’t it be outlandish if that was illegal?  What about a Muslim student club at a community college turning down an atheist who seeks a leadership post, or a Christian student group at a public university requiring leaders to be Christians in belief and conduct?  Should the leadership criteria of the religious student groups be labeled as discriminatory and be forbidden?  That’s just what various public colleges and universities have declared—but such an interpretation of discrimination is no longer allowed in Kansas, thanks to a measure signed into law by Governor Sam Brownback on March 22, 2016.

The Kansas bill, SB 175, is brief but addresses a serious problem created by a significant number of colleges and universities and legitimized, in part, by the US Supreme Court.  

It is common for higher education institutions to “recognize”a variety of student groups—ethnic, sports, political, academic, etc., and religious.  Recognized groups get a number of benefits, such as access to the campus email system, easy use of meeting space, a chance to pitch themselves when incoming freshmen arrive on campus, sometimes a subsidy for travel to relevant conferences, and the like. Facilitating student clubs is one way the universities and colleges help students to extend their education beyond the classroom and be introduced to a wide range of activities and options.  

Religiously and morally conservative student groups, in particular, typically formally require anyone who wants a leadership position to demonstrate faithfulness to the teachings of the respective religions—and increasingly such a requirement has found disfavor with secular higher education institutions, often regarding this as further evidence of the homophobia of conservative religion.  The US Supreme Court, in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, decided in 2010, even put its stamp of approval on such bans on leadership criteria, as long as the university or college enforces an “all comers”policy on all student groups and does not single out religious groups or religious criteria.  Christian student clubs, such as InterVarsity Student Fellowship, have gotten in trouble in various secular public higher education institutions and systems for insisting that only faithful Christians, as the IV clubs interpret that, can be placed in leadership.  Sometimes an accommodation is reached with the college or university that allows the club to protect its mission and leadership; sometimes the student clubs end up de-recognized, needing to retool to engage students without routine access to campus space and campus communications.

The new Kansas campus law protects religious student clubs that have religious criteria for their leaders.  No public college or university in Kansas may de-recognize a religious student club on the grounds that the club requires leaders or members to be faithful to the club’s religious beliefs and religiously based conduct standards.   

Did Kansas just embed discrimination into the state’s higher education system?  It trivializes the term to use it this way.  Whether or not it has a declared policy, every group—club, company, nonprofit, college, church—that has some distinct identity also has distinct criteria for potential leaders, and often for anyone who seeks to join.  Recall the Democratic lawmaker.  It is not wrongful discrimination when Bryn Mawr College, the women’s college outside of Philadelphia, turns away male students.  No one can rightly be offended if a campus Young Republican group declines to let Bernie Sanders acolytes compete for its leadership.   No one should expect, or require, a Baptist church to call to its pulpit even the most revered rabbi, and no one should expect, or require, a campus religious group to accept into its leadership someone who does not show willing acceptance of the group’s convictions and moral values.