A Plea for Religious Freedom in Kansas

18 Missouri- St. Louis via Kansas  to SpringfieldThere is so much crazy going on in Topeka right now, it’s hard to settle down and pick one thing to be be righteously indignant about.

I’m absolutely concerned about the proposed bill that would basically put Sam Brownback in charge of the K-12 budget. The possibility of a complete collapse of public education in Kansas seems more real every day. And as the wife of a public school teacher with two children in the public schools, I’m wondering how long we’ll even be able to stay in Kansas.

But as a pastor, I feel like I especially need to address a current bill, being voted on in the Kansas House this morning, that deeply threatens the religious liberty of all people of faith in this state.

Both the Kansas House of Representatives and Governor Brownback have shown great support for religious freedom in the past. The House passed the “Religious Freedom Act” in 2014 (which thankfully died in the Senate). And just last year Brownback issued an executive order to make sure religious institutions and clergy did not have to violate their “deeply held beliefs.”

So if your religious beliefs prevent you from joyfully participating in a union of one man and another man in holy matrimony, Kansas has your back. And I suppose that’s OK. I know the broader church would be much better off if we would re-evaluate our traditional attitudes toward sexuality and universally affirm love. But I wouldn’t wish a grumpy conservative preacher on any gay couple. (The implications of Brownback’s executive order for adoptions, homeless shelters, and other areas, are much more problematic. This is a terribly oppressive order that is much for about legalizing discrimination than it is about protecting religious freedom.)

I’m hoping that the House and the Governor will extend their support of religious freedom by rejecting today’s proposed “Refugee Absorptive Capacity Act” (HB 2612). This bill would allow Kansas communities to refuse to allow refugees to settle there if the community does not have the capacity to adequately provide services to them.

Let’s be honest, this hot mess of a state doesn’t have the capacity to adequately provide services for anyone. So the reality is that the bill would allow any community to exercise racial and ethnic prejudice under the guise of having reached “absorptive capacity.” (Plus people who have no idea what “absorptive capacity” even means would be trying to use it in complete sentences. Things could get ugly.)

The bill would also place extensive documentation requirements on communities that decide they do have the capacity to let in a few desperate people fleeing civil war. Which means that many resources that could actually go to helping settle families will instead go to reporting back to Topeka about how and how many refugees have been resettled and what the impact has been on the community. Reports which will in turn be used to justify Brownback’s potential—but already written into this bill—executive order “declaring that the state, through any entity or designee, will not, until revocation of the executive order, participate in the resettlement of refugees.”

I promise I am not making this up.

This bill is an immense threat to the religious freedom of most Kansans of faith. While there is a sharp division of opinion in religious communities regarding same-sex marriage, people of faith are, for the most part, united in our support of refugees. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim sacred texts all give extensive support for welcoming the stranger and caring for the downtrodden. People of faith are called—we are commanded—to help foreigners who are fleeing life-threatening circumstances. We are commanded to take in strangers who find themselves in a foreign land.

And we cannot live out this central tenet of our faith if our state government refuses to allow refugees into our communities.

So, yes, defeating the “Refugee Absorption Capacity Act” is about human rights and racial/ethnic tolerance and general human decency. It is also about protecting the religious freedom of many many people of faith who believe God commands us to care for the stranger.

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