TOPEKA — A Republican senator told a Muslim woman that he would be happy to convert her to Christianity when she asked him how he planned to fairly represent all his constituents, not just those who shared his religion.
Hutchinson Republican Sen. Mark Steffen was meeting with a group of young Kansans from Wichita and Hutchinson in his office when he made the statement March 16.
Rija Nazir, a 22-year-old recent Wichita State University graduate and campaign organizer with Loud Light, said she wanted to give Steffen a chance to explain his perspective when she asked the question, after seeing a large Bible on his desk and knowing his strong religious views.
“I obviously knew a little bit of background about him, but I didn’t want to just write him off just yet,” Nazir said. “I wanted to have a chance to let him speak for himself.”
Nazir told Steffen she was Muslim and asked him how he approached non-Christian constituents.
“I would be happy to try and convert you,” Steffen said in response, while laughing.
Nazir said she was worried that his immediate response to her question was to dismiss her religion.
“I already know that a lot of senators think that way,” Nazir said. “But it was still jarring to hear him say it without any hesitation. Usually I’m able to kind of lay off the situation and kind of be a little bit like, ‘OK, yeah,’ but in that situation, I was just kind of speechless.”
Kansas Reflector verified the conversation by listening to an audio recording from the meeting, but Steffen denied making the comment.
“That is not true,” Steffen said in an April 26 interview. “That is a false statement, 100%. That’s all I got to say.”
Nazir said she had experienced Islamophobia and bigotry before, but she felt Steffen’s reaction was inappropriate, especially as a lawmaker.
“It still got to me, even though it’s not something that’s very new to me,” Nazir said. “Just to see someone spew that kind of hatred and not even backtrack or try to cover themselves up was very scary to see.”
Other meeting participants said Steffen didn’t retract his statement when informed that other people of different religions were also present, including Jewish and atheist attendees.
Jenna Dozier, a 22-year-old Jewish person and political science major at Wichita State, said she was concerned by Steffen’s comment.
“Being promised equal representation at the convenience of religious conversion to Christianity is extremely inappropriate for a state senator,” Dozier said. “In Kansas we believe in the first amendment that allows us to practice our religion of choice. Sen. Mark Steffen should be ashamed for his remarks said to Rija and I.”
After discussions with their families and faith leaders, Nazir and Dozier decided to come forward to ask Steffen to issue an apology and commit to respecting all faiths in an open letter to be published and released by Loud Light this week. In the letter, the two also ask Senate President Ty Masterson, an Andover Republican, to denounce Steffen’s statement.
A spokesman for Masterson’s office didn’t respond to inquiries from Kansas Reflector for this story.
Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action, said lawmakers needed to represent everyone fairly, regardless of religion.
“The idea that everyone is represented in our government — without regard to race or religion — is a core principle of our representative democracy,” Rieber said. “A senator serves everyone, not just those who share his religion. Sen. Steffen’s clear indication to these two young people that he respects non-Christian Kansans less is a repudiation of this basic civic concept, and requires (at least) an apology and a pledge to do better in the future.”
Steffen is known for his conservative Christian views. He mentioned his desire for “Godly” legislative results in a Wednesday Facebook post, at the start of the veto override session.
“The Kansas Senate is back in session. It’s time to override our wildly liberal governor. The well-being of our society is in the balance. Pray for wisdom and Godly results,” Steffen said.
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: email@example.com. Follow Kansas Reflector on Facebook and Twitter.