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A new Virginia law on student organizations at public colleges is rousing feedback from critics and causing student groups at Virginia Tech to take public action.
The law, passed last week, would give student organizations the ability to base membership decisions off of whether a person’s religious or political beliefs align with those of the organization.
The law states that religious or political based student groups can decide that “only people committed to the organization’s mission” are allowed to join or run for leadership positions. Public universities are prohibited from “discriminating against a student organization that makes such a determination” about its core functions.
Some, though, are questioning the motives of those supporting the bill, and are concerned about the effects it will have on the LGBT community and religious groups especially.
“I think it’s a well-crafted way to allow student organizations to discriminate,” said Caroline Sapyta, junior environmental resource management major and president of the LGBTA.
Michael Sutphin, member of the Blacksburg Town Council, board member at Equality Virginia and Virginia Tech alumnus, agreed.
“On its surface, the bill is written to make it sound like it is protecting freedom of speech or freedom of association,” Sutphin said. “Really, it’s a way for student groups to circumvent campus anti-discrimination policies.”
The bill passed in the Senate 22-18 and in the House 73-27 in February. The votes fell mostly along party lines in the Senate, with four Democrats voting in favor of the bill, and Gov. Bob McDonnell signed the legislation into law last week.
However, not all students see the bill as a means of discrimination, but rather a way to ensure groups on campus are not threatened by lack of funding for being selective about membership.
Harrison Bergeron, sophomore biology major and vice president of the Libertarians at Virginia Tech, thinks that the bill can impact the LGBT community positively.
“A club (could) decide that they don’t want someone in their meetings, who for 90 minutes would say ‘whatever you’re doing is completely immoral’,” Bergeron said. “I would see it as a very positive thing, specifically for the gay community.”
The legislation has caused some student groups at Virginia Tech to take action.
Nick Onopa, senior public and urban affairs major and undergraduate representative to the Board of Visitors, helped draft a letter to be sent to McDonnell on behalf of BOV representatives asking him to veto the bill.
According to Onopa, the gist of the letter was that Tech, as an undergraduate study body, would not support the law because of the values of community and mission of the university to provide service to all, not just some.
According to Bergeron, the Libertarians at Virginia Tech planned to send a letter to the Commission on Student Affairs, whose members helped draft the letter to the governor, “to remind them they don’t speak on behalf of us.” They also planned to send a letter to the governor expressing their support of the law.
The Student Budget Board is also currently working on changing its bylaws to avoid funding groups who adopt discriminatory membership policies.
“We will not allocate funds to organizations that discriminate,” Onopa said.
All-Comers Policies and Hastings
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court heard the case Hastings Christian Fellowship v. Martinez. At the University of California at Hastings’ law school, a religious club required all members to subscribe to a statement of beliefs. The school then denied the organization recognition as a school club because of it.
The question in the case was whether or not public universities can use all-comers policies, or policies that require groups to accept all comers regardless of their beliefs, to deny official status and funding to groups.
With a 5-4 vote, the Court supported the all-comers policies, and the ability of a public institution to cut funding to, and even expel an organization, if the policy is not upheld.
This is exactly what Virginia’s new law intends to avoid.
According to Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-26th) who proposed the bill, it was meant to protect freedoms of assembly and association in student organizations in response to Hastings and to clarify Virginia’s position on all-comers policies at public universities.
“I think (groups who don’t like the law) are seeing demons where they don’t exist,” Obenshain said. “It doesn’t do what some of these groups that are criticizing it seem to think that it does. I hope they will be reassured.”
This law is not the first legislation of its kind. Ohio adopted a similar law last year banning “all-comers” policies.
All-comers policies became a problem at Vanderbilt University last year, when fifteen Christian groups lost their funding and access to facilities after refusing to confirm the new policy.
“It protects the freedom of association that is inherent in the first amendment … which, presumably, is a value worth preserving,” Obenshain said.
Obenshain assures the law has a neutral viewpoint, protecting the rights of every group equally, and is also not meant to undermine current protections in place by state and federal law.
“This (law) protects the LGBT groups just like it does some group with conflicting values,” Obenshain said. “I would think they’d want to limit membership and leadership to people who want to protect the LGBT values and protect the rights of the LGBT community,” Obenshain said.
The rights of groups: to exclude or to not exclude?
There are those who support and oppose the exclusivity of student organizations. Obenshain, however, thinks students should be able to meet exclusively.
“I believe that student groups … ought to be free to organize on the basis of shared beliefs,” Obenshain said. “I think that’s an important part of college experience and college life and academic and personal freedom.”
Sutphin, though, points to a different part of the college experience.
“(You) are supposed to be able to interact with people with different beliefs than you,” Sutphin said. “Clubs are exactly the kind of place where … it would be good to engage in those kinds of dialogues about religion, politics, sexuality and those sorts of issues.”
Bergeron, however, believes groups should have the right to restrict membership to students who agree with their mission.
“The point of having a club isn’t to have everybody and their mothers in it,” Bergeron said. “It’s designed for a specific group of people who believe a certain thing … and you have a right to assemble in the way that you wish to.”
The law will go into effect on July 1, 2013.