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New driving privilege for 15-year-olds opens preferential path to religious activities

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TOPEKA — Gov. Laura Kelly signed legislation enabling 15-year-olds with restricted driver’s licenses to drive unaccompanied to “religious activities” such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes meetings at a school but not a gathering in the same building of National Honor Society.

The language of Senate Bill 446, which expands driving privileges, explicitly says these young teenagers can drive to religious activities, which means 15-year-olds could get behind the wheel nightly to attend a Christmas play practice at church but not a Shakespeare play practice in the community.

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“It sets up more rights for religious activities than school activities,” said Rep Mari-Lynn Poskin, a Leawood Democrat with seven children with experience parsing details of the state’s driving law.

Rep. Richard Proehl, R-Parsons, and Sen. Mike Petersen, R-Wichita, negotiated the final version of the bill signed Tuesday by the Democratic governor.

During negotiations, lawmakers dramatically broadened reach of the reform by replacing “worship service” with “religious activity” to give teenagers wider opportunities to drive alone starting in July.

“We decided to change it to religious activities to make sure it included youth groups,” Petersen said.

Negotiators also included in the bill a provision limiting the privilege to 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. to curtail late-night driving by 15-year-olds.

The Senate approved the legislation March 31 without meaningful debate on a vote of 38-0, while the House took time to enable Poskin and Rep. Henry Helgerson, D-Wichita, to share criticism of the religious activity language. It cleared the House on a vote of 87-30. The original more restrictive version of the bill, House Bill 2609, was sponsored by more than 40 House Republicans and Democrats.

“The good that comes from our youth attending worship or religious education is at least of equal value than what they learn at school or the experiences they gain from employment,” said Rep. Charlotte Esau, R-Olathe.

Under existing state law, a 15-year-old holding a restricted class C or M driver’s license could drive directly to and from school or work without supervision.

The bill defined religious activities to be organizing of any group, church or body of communicants gathering for religious purposes. The definition would accommodate a group that scheduled meetings at least on a weekly basis and was recognized as a bona fide religious organization.

While tinkering with the law applied to 15-year-old drivers, the Legislature also adjusted statute regarding 16-year-olds with restricted licenses so the older individuals could also drive to and from religious activities rather than be limited to worship services. Persons 17 years of age qualify for an unrestricted driver’s license.

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Jeff Piepho, founder and pastor of Revolution Church in Salina and father of six children, said religious liberty and reasonable driving laws were important.

He had questioned why 15-year-olds in Kansas could drive to work or school without supervision but those same drivers were forbidden to drive to worship services until they reached 16.

“The Supreme Court has ruled that states must have compelling reasons to not allow the free exercise of religion in cases as far reaching as adoption rights, religious veils on licenses and more,” Piepho said. “There is no compelling reason to deny 15-year-olds the ability to drive to religious services.”

Kansas Reflector is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Kansas Reflector maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Sherman Smith for questions: info@kansasreflector.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.

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