Virginia Senate Approves Bill Allowing College Groups to Discriminate Based On Religious Beliefs

The Virginia state Senate this week approved a bill that would allow student groups at publicly funded colleges and universities to discriminate against members whose religious beliefs don’t align with those of the group.

The bill’s text reads:

1. A religious or political student organization may determine that ordering the organization’s internal affairs, selecting the organization’s leaders and members, defining the organization’s doctrines, and resolving the organization’s disputes are in furtherance of the organization’s religious or political mission and that only persons committed to that mission should conduct such activities.

It further specifies that colleges may not discriminate against groups that, well, discriminate.

In addition to discriminating against potential members based on their belief systems, the bill paves a route for religious groups to keep out LGBT students. Members of the LGBT rights group Equality Virginia say proponents used convoluted arguments to try and muddle the bill’s discriminatory nature:

“Sen. (Mark) Obenshain (R-Va.), the bill’s patron, used free association in his argument and was insistent that LGBT people, vegans, Republicans, and Democrats would be able to have their own groups,” Kevin Clay, spokesperson for Equality Virginia told Campus Progress. However, he continued, “excluding students from joining an organization is discrimination plain and simple, and the true impact is to be seen here.”

According to Campus Progress, some legislators echoed that fear:

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Va.), the only openly gay legislator in Virginia, illuminated what he believed to be the true intention of the bill: “Virginia law and federal law allow discrimination against gay people, and that’s what this bill is about — plain and simple. It’s not about freedom of expression, because groups are allowed to express themselves any way they want. It’s about using tax payer dollars to fund discrimination.

The bill had already passed in a lower house, so now it’s up to Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell to approve it or strike it down. As Clay told Campus Progress:

“Public universities should foster free speech and expression in compliance with their policies of inclusion and nondiscrimination, and providing funding to organizations that do the opposite would be contradictory and wrong.”


About Camille Beredjick

Camille is a twentysomething working in the LGBT nonprofit industry. She runs an LGBT news blog at gaywrites.org.

  • surprisesaplenty

    I see your point but shouldn’t an LGBT group be able to exclude a homophobe who joined only to sabotage the group? Or exclude a YEC bent on lecturing to the group from an atheist group or…

    It may not be the best decision but is it such a bad one?

    • RobMcCune

      I’m guessing it’s a solution in search of a problem, for anything but fundamentalist christian groups.

      • Frank

        I don’t doubt that conservative christian groups are the main ones at issue here. But since when are they not entitled to equal treatement? The only reason other student groups don’t have problems is because nobody expects the college democrats to admit republic members or the muslim students association to admin non-muslim members or the hispanic student association to admit non-hispanics.

        • RobMcCune

          The problem being addressed isn’t intentional subversion, but other christians who are less authoritarian and doctrinaire, including gay christians. Though now that I think about it, from a fundamentalist perspective that would seem like exactly the same thing.

          • Frank

            And if liberal christians want to form their own student groups open to gay christians and other more theologically diverse dchristians, and receive the same level of university support for their groups, they absolutely have that right. But thee conservative christians also have a right to define christiantiy as they understand it (including the proposition that homosexuality is a sin), and to define their group around that idea, and to receive equal university support. Public schools can’t support liberal christianity over conservative christianity.

    • Baby_Raptor

      In your examples, there would be other motivations-legal, non-discriminatory ones-for removing the person from the group: Namely their intent to harass.

    • baal

      Your point that there are some reasons to exclude people from groups otherwise composed of members from the public (as opposed to an invite only golf course) is valid in theory. In practice, bills like this one only serve church based student groups to exclude various people who are in a minority or are otherwise ‘undesirables.’ We simply don’t see klansmen showing up to the local universities black student association demanding a seat or other similar IRL trolling*.

      *the usual mode for expression of conservative trolling of disadvantaged and support groups is anonymous threats of violence.

  • DougI

    Yet more special rights for believers. If you don’t give them special treatment then they’ll whine about being persecuted like the Jews in Nazi Germany. What a bunch of drama queens.

  • DougI

    Yet more special rights for believers. If you don’t give them special treatment then they’ll whine about being persecuted like the Jews in Nazi Germany. What a bunch of drama queens.

  • http://twitter.com/Opinionatedcath Opinionated Catholic

    Good Bill. It protects the First amendment values that are suppose to happen on a college campus.

    • LifeinTraffic

      I don’t think the “First amendment” means what you seem to think they mean (since that’s completely in line with the RCC, it’s not exactly a surprise you feel that way). Contrary to (ill-informed, uneducated) popular belief, the First Amendment does not give people free reign to discriminate or to say or do whatever they want in whatever venue they please, especially when those people or groups are using public funds or public property.

      • http://twitter.com/Opinionatedcath Opinionated Catholic

        I have a little bit of experience and learning with the First amendment and little of it it had to do with what I learned in Catechism Class.

        It is true that the First Amendment does not give free reign to everything under the sun. However it should be noted that it does protect many discrimination.

        In fact it needs to be noted that not all forms of discrimination are bad. We discriminate all the time. Sometimes discrimination is indifferent. Further even when Discrimination is viewed as bad by some we should be wary of Govt power that might try to curtail those speech and association rights. That is does Govt power sort of peter out and can’t reach it.

        As to the case at hand selectivity on the basis of belief allows groups to organize around a coherent viewpoint, and enables minority views to survive despite majoritarian pressure . That is an important interest and especially one in a public forum like a University

        I really suggest this Law Review article that might address some of the concerns people here have

        http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1768210

        • LifeinTraffic

          Are we reading the same thing? Because that link says ” the Supreme Court in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez upheld a public university’s policy requiring all student organizations to give voting membership to all interested students, even if a student’s beliefs conflict with the expressive purpose of the organization. In concluding that this “all-comers” policy was both reasonable and viewpoint neutral, the Court analyzed a student organization’s First Amendment expressive association claim using the test for speech restrictions on government property constituting a limited public forum. ”

          So…the Supreme Court agrees that a law like the one passed in VA isn’t constitutional. While the author of the article clearly disagrees with this, that doesn’t change the ruling, and the article certainly didn’t convince me that the ruling was wrong.

          These aren’t private groups, these are groups funded with public, taxpayer money at public, tax-payer funded colleges and universities. There should be no discriminatory groups on campus using those types of funds and the public facilities. As far as the concern that a student with a different viewpoint might join and be disruptive, that is a non-issue. There are pathways already present in those institutions for removing a disruptive member from groups. If someone with a differing viewpoint wishes to join an LGBTsupport group, then so long as they aren’t disruptive, there is no reason they should not be allowed to do so (heck, I’d encourage it–seeing more than one view of the world is a good thing).

          If someone wants to run a bigoted group, they should do so off-campus with private money.

          • Frank

            Firstly, the supreme court has never even suggested, in CLS or any other case, that public universities must exclude student organizations that discriminate. It never said that Hastings (the public law school at which the CLS case arose) was required to exclude CLS, only that it was permitted to.

            Secondly, Justice Ginsburg’s majority opinion in the CLS case was very clear that it was upholding an all-comers policy, not a non-discrimination policy. In other words, all CLS says is that it is ok for a university to prohibit its student groups from having any membership restrictions. It does not say that it is ok for a university to apply a policy against discriminating on a particular list of characteristics to group defined by those very characteristics. A policy against discrimination on a particular list of characteristics simply wasn’t at issue in the CLS case. So even after CLS, I think this bill is just reiterating first amendment law.

            Thirdly, these are private groups and they are using government resources (meeting space and advertising on campus as well as money). The whole point of the first amendment is that the government can’t prefer one idea over another in its allocation of resources. The public university allocates resources to many student groups with many conflicting ideas, and it can’t prefer those that think homosexuals should be equal over those that think they shouldn’t.

  • Blacksheep

    This sounds fair to me. If an atheist group formed on campus and their goal was to have fellowship together as Atheists, I would accept them not wanting me as a member, since I would be an annoying distraction to the purpose of the group. If I formed a Democrats club, it would be odd for a right wing republican to join and (presumably) disagree with every conversation.

  • http://www.facebook.com/KiefIsChief Christopher Harris

    I’m not quite sure I see the problem with this. I’m in a fraternity, which are values-based organizations (or at least, they’re supposed to be). If a person doesn’t meet up to those values, then we don’t let them in. Some fraternities say only religious people can get in, some say only Christians can get in (luckily mine doesn’t care about your religion). If an organization has a goal, then the organization should only let people in who share that goal.

  • Frank

    Camille, what do you think about high schools that try to exclude GSAs or SSAs? The only way those groups are able to form in a lot of places is by taking advantage of the equal access doctrine which is a core part of first amendment law. The idea is that if the government provides its resources to some private groups to express their ideas, it has to provide those resources equally to all private groups, whatever side of the political/religious/ideological spectrum they may be on. So if a high school gives meeting space and funding to a conservative christian group, it has to give meeting space and funding to gay and atheist groups. This bill is just about the same thing in reverse, if colleges give meeting space and funding to atheist and gay groups, they have to give meeting space and funding to conservative christian groups that exclude gays and atheists. That isn’t the college discriminating or promoting discrimination, that is the college treating everyone the same.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Tyro-Kathar/1539781848 Tyro Kathar

    Start a secular group with free cookies & exclude all the haters :-p

  • Rumin8

    So if there were a white-racist group with white members only, that would be ok too? Of course who but white-racists would want to join such a group anyway, so perhaps this is moot. Or how about a masonic group that acts to favor its members over others when making decisions within the community (such as selection for any kind of position)?


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