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Recent Kansas Editorials

December 2, 2019 GMT

The Kansas City Star, Nov. 27

Lenexa should let this church practice what it preaches and shelter the homeless

Lenexa, Kansas, you really are violating the First Amendment right to religious freedom by denying Shawnee Mission Unitarian Universalist Church the right to operate a temporary homeless shelter for 40 people during the winter months.

You seem to be telling church members that they can pray about and talk about their most deeply held beliefs. They can think about them, sing about them and express them through interpretive dance. But they mustn’t actually do anything about them.

The church, in the building that used to house Bonjour Elementary School, is across a fence, some railroad tracks and a road from a gas station. It’s near a Community Center for seniors and Holy Trinity Catholic Church.

You’d think that, as an attorney for the church, Daniel Dalton, said, “this area of town, it’s just perfect for this particular use … There’s a demonstrated need in Johnson County because there are no shelters available. So it’s just a perfect fit.”

But need, schmeed. Under city code, there’s no place for a shelter in all of Lenexa, where Dalton says zoning is in fact intended “to keep a homeless shelter out.”

The church has partnered with the nonprofit Project 1020 to try and remedy that by opening what would be the only shelter in Johnson County. But now that their application to do this has been turned down, they’re suing the city, arguing that people will freeze in the cold as a result, when they don’t have to.

Other churches in other locales have won lawsuits like this. Last year, a federal judge said St. Paul, Minnesota, could not keep the First Lutheran Church there from operating a homeless shelter under the First Amendment.

But Johnson County is going to have to be forced to acknowledge that religious freedom means more than allowing orthodox Christian bakers to refuse to create an edible work of art for a same-sex wedding.

Christ told his followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked and visit the prisoner. Jews are called to repair the world, and Islam teaches that believers “give food, out of love for Allah, to the poor, the orphan and the slave.”

The Unitarian Universalist Church, which comes out of a liberal Christian tradition, holds this: “We seek to act as a moral force in the world and believe that ethical living is the supreme witness of religion.”

The senior minister at the church, the Rev. Rose Schwab, is a Buddhist nun who, according to the church website, “believes church to be a place of authenticity, healing, justice, and transformation.” And in America, words about the witness of faith are supposed to mean something.

Asking any religion not to act on the central tenets of its faith is not constitutional, and that is what Lenexa is asking the Unitarian Universalists to do. There are not even any other group’s countervailing rights to consider here, because who doesn’t think we ought to act as a moral force in the world?

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The Manhattan Mercury, Dec. 1

Result of Title IX case not as simple as it seems

Two young women have dropped their federal lawsuit against Kansas State University, and in a limited sense that makes complete sense to us. Their case — which alleged that K-State should bear some of the blame for rapes that happened off-campus — never really added up, in legal terms.

But that doesn’t mean K-State can simply let the issue drop. Because in a broader sense, the women had a valid point.

The women, Tessa Farmer and Sara Weckhorst, had sued K-State in 2016 for violating Title IX, the federal law that bans discrimination in higher education on the basis of sex.

In their lawsuit, the women argued that K-State refused to investigate Weckhorst’s 2014 report that she was raped at a fraternity house, and that the university’s “deliberate indifference” and lack of action led to another rape in Manhattan committed by the same person. Weckhorst’s rapist was convicted and sent to prison, but he was found not guilty in another case.

K-State has held for many years that it is not obligated to police off-campus housing, including fraternities. We agree, and ultimately that’s why the lawsuit evaporated. If the women’s goal was actually to win in court, they failed, and probably never had much of a shot.

But we doubt that was their real goal. Their real goal, in connection with other similar lawsuits and campaigns around the country, was to raise the profile of the issue. On that, they certainly succeeded. The case made it to the front page of the New York Times, for instance.

And their point, in many ways, is valid. What happens in a fraternity house might not be legally the responsibility of the university, but common sense says that what happens in those places is intimately connected to the college experience of the young men who live there, and to the young women who visit.

The university can’t divorce itself from fraternities, and it shouldn’t. It simply needs to do everything it can to enforce standards of acceptable behavior, and it needs to make certain there are appropriate channels for handling complaints. We’re confident that’s happening now, and we’re confident that it will get better as a result of this experience.

For that, we need to thank the two young women who had the guts to sue.

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The Topeka Capital-Journal, Nov. 29

Details needed in bills about abandoned wells

It’s good news that the Kansas Corporation Commission and the Kansas Independent Oil & Gas Association are uniting behind a package of legislation meant to streamline the process of plugging abandoned wells across the state. The need is pressing, with more than 5,000 wells on the KCC’s priority list awaiting action.

The devil, as always, will be in the details.

There are three proposals from the regular and industry. The first, according to Topeka Capital-Journal reporter Tim Carpenter, would “administratively combine two remediation funds, one for historical wells drilled before 1996 and the other for modern wells created since that year, into a singular account.” The second would “clarify in state law how the KCC assigned responsibility for plugging wells.” And the third would “grant authority for the commission to begin reimbursing farmers, landowners or others for taking the initiative to cap wells as long as that person wasn’t determined to be the party legally responsible for the wells.”

All of these ideas seem worthwhile and worthy of consideration from the Legislature. We understand that the oil and gas industry wants legal certainty, especially when the ownership of long-abandoned wells enters the picture. Many were drilled in the 1930s and 1940s and owners are long gone.

What seems less clear to us is how this increased certainty and simplified funding actually translates into more capped wells. It’s all well and good to clarify who actually has responsibility for abandoned well sites. But that doesn’t mean it’s fixed. Likewise, streamlining funds to pay for the work will make bookkeeping simpler. But it doesn’t mean those funds are disbursed to actually support the needed work in communities across the state.

And the biggest, thorniest questions remain. How are these sites actually affecting the environment across the state? Are drinking water supplies at risk? We commend Sen. Carolyn McGinn, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, for pressing the KCC on the issue during a hearing this month.

We know that the abandoned wells are a problem. KCC and the industry should be commended for a proactive approach. But the work cannot end with these proposals. Legislatures should push both entities during the upcoming session to answer questions about environmental impact and the actual pressing need.

How will the wells be filled? Who will pay for the work? And when will it be done?