Two bills recently passed by the General Assembly are drawing attention from around the state from some who say the bills would allow discrimination in student groups.
The bills, House Bill 1617 and Senate Bill 1074, would allow politically- and religiously-oriented student organizations at Virginia’s public universities to allow only those people deemed “committed to the organization’s mission” to join the club and bars the university from defunding clubs that discriminate their membership.
The legislation is framed as a way to make sure those with opposing viewpoints don’t take over a club, to prevent something like Democratic students taking over a Young Republicans group.
Groups including the ACLU of Virginia and student leaders at Virginia Tech have sent letters of opposition to Gov. Bob McDonnell urging him to veto the bills which they say could codify discriminatory membership standards.
The executive director of Virginia’s ACLU, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, said the bills are part of a national movement to override a 2010 Supreme Court decision, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, that enabled public universities to require any groups seeking recognition and funding to follow the school’s nondiscrimination policy.
“(These bills) would require Virginia Commonwealth University and any public university or college in the state to fund an organization even if it’s discriminatory,” Gastañaga said. The wording of the bill includes a clause that says the discrimination can only be carried out to the extent allowed by law, but Gastañaga argues that this clause is unclear and may not provide sufficient protection to students.
“There’s no federal law that flows with money into universities that says they can’t discriminate based on religion and there’s no law that protects gay students from discrimination,” she said. “We think that under the bill as it’s crafted, the university would have to fund a white supremacist organization, it would have to fund an organization like the Christian Legal Society that doesn’t admit gay students. An organization that said ‘We don’t admit gay people’ would be able to come to the student body and say, ‘We have a right to student fees like everybody else. You have to give us student fees.’”
At VCU, in order to have a club officially recognized and receive funding, the group’s constitution must include an equal opportunity or nondiscrimination clause and a statement affirming that the club’s membership is open to all students. If McDonnell signs the legislation, the university would have to make exceptions to this policy for religious and political groups. Gastañaga said there may even be a problem with only applying the policy to certain groups.
“(The bills) only apply to religious and political organizations and there’s an inherent potential legal problem there, because it says somehow that those organizations should be funded to discriminate, but other student organizations shouldn’t be funded to discriminate,” she said.
The Family Foundation is one of the groups that supports the legislation. Chris Freund, the group’s vice president of policy and communications, said the bills are meant to protect student organizations from what he calls ‘all-comers’ policies, which force groups to accept members whose values aren’t in line with the clubs — a right he says falls under the First Amendment’s right to free association.
“(All-comers policies) essentially render student groups meaningless because they can’t set up any kind of organizational standards for membership or leadership,” Freund said. He argues that student groups can’t be discriminated against by the withholding of funding because of what they believe in and that groups have the right to decide who to admit.
“(Public universities’) policies toward student groups have to be viewpoint neutral.”
Tom Kramer, executive director of Virginia 21, a youth issues advocacy group that frequently deals with student issues, said he thinks that the bill is unnecessary and a waste of time. He said he has yet to see an instance of discrimination in Virginia that proponents of the bill can point to in order to prove that the legislation is necessary. He also said it’s doubtful that students are engaging in the kind of conduct this legislation is intended to protect against.
“Are there really folks that are for LGBT equality that are going to join groups that think that being gay is a choice? … I don’t think people are wasting their time doing the kind of stuff is seems like the legislators are trying to prevent,” Kramer said.
“Students are already busy enough trying to keep up with their own studies, work if they have jobs and all the clubs they’re already involved in. I don’t know who has time to try to join another club to surreptitiously take it over,” Kramer said.
Kramer said that this sort of legislation largely does nothing, and distracts from other issues that he says are more important, like the ability of schools to pay professors enough to maintain a high quality of education.
“We just can’t pay our professors enough, and that’s something I think more people should be worried about. If the quality of our degrees goes down, I don’t really care what clubs you can join,” he said.
Monroe Park Campus SGA President Jae Lee said that he doesn’t support the legislation and believes that open membership is important to the ideals of a university like VCU.
“I think that the main issue is just to make sure that any student who wants the opportunity to join an organization can do so. … I don’t think any organizations have been waiting for this bill to pass in order to discriminate against other students,” Lee said. “I think VCU is diverse and more open to diversity so you won’t see much of that (discrimination) happening.”