Mormon scolded by Christian group is at center of Kansas law

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Posted: Mar 16, 2016 6:35 PM
Mormon scolded by Christian group is at center of Kansas law

TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Daniel Arkell was leading a Bible study for a Christian group at Washburn University Law School in Kansas back in 2004 when the group's president reprimanded him for saying that people's eyes offer a glimpse into their souls. Arkell, who is a Mormon, was asked to sign a statement recognizing the Bible, not the Book of Mormon, as the word of God.

He refused, and the organization temporarily lost its public funding after Arkell complained to the dean. That led to a legal dispute at the center of a proposed law Kansas is expected to enact soon, which would allow such faith-based groups to limit membership to the like-minded.

"I thought it was inappropriate for them to discriminate against me ... when they were receiving public funding," Arkell told The Associated Press.

The Republican-dominated Kansas Legislature on Wednesday approved the bill allowing college religious groups to restrict membership, even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled nearly six years ago that universities can require membership in such groups to be open to all.

If conservative Gov. Sam Brownback signs the measure into law as expected, Kansas would be the second state after Oklahoma to have such a religious objections law. And moving forward with the law could put Kansas on a collision course with civil liberties groups.

"I believe that every student association should have the right to stand for something and they should have the right to practice their own beliefs as they so feel," said Arkell, 41, who now practices law at his own firm in Dodge City, Kansas. "However, when public funds come into play, there needs to be a little bit more leeway."

Supporters of the Kansas proposal said it was a response to pressure on school religious organizations to accept anyone as a member, even if their beliefs conflict with those of the group. But opponents say it would sanction discrimination in the name of religion, could risk the loss of federal aid and would waste money defending it in court. American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas executive director Micah Kubic said the group was assessing whether it would file a lawsuit challenging the Kansas measure.

Republican Rep. Craig McPherson of Overland Park spoke in favor of the bill during debate Tuesday, adding that the measure counteracted a trend in which religious organizations are penalized for their beliefs.

"The people of Kansas should rise with somewhat righteous indignation against the contention that protecting religious liberty is equivalent with being discriminatory," McPherson said.

The bill stems from a handful of on-campus incidents in Kansas, including Arkell's complaint 12 years ago, and some in other states.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruling originated from a California incident. The Christian Legal Society at the University of California-Hastings College of Law was refused recognition and funding after it required all members to sign a form that they would abstain from pre-marital or same-sex sexual conduct. In a 5-4 decision, the high court backed the university's right to do so.

Kansas already has a religious objections law that prevents state or local governments from limiting people's freedom to express their religion, though the law doesn't touch on organizations at universities.

The extension of the culture war over religious liberty to universities has some Kansas institutions nervous.

"Kansas State University expects that there would be significant legal costs due to inherent legal conflicts with these federal laws," said Maureen Redeker, assistant general counsel of Kansas State University, referring to the Supreme Court ruling.

The Kansas debate follows an uproar last year over a religious objections law in Indiana, and to a lesser extent a similar measure in Arkansas. Critics in those cases said the laws would allow discrimination against gays and lesbians by allowing providers of services such as flowers to deny them for same sex weddings. Both states revised their laws following the criticism, although they still allow certain religious objections.

This year, the Missouri Senate passed a proposal to include religious protection in the state constitution for those who object to gay marriage. The measure is pending.