The Virginia state legislature passed a bill yesterday that would allow religious and political student groups on college campuses to discriminate and still receive public funding. The bill, which would prevent universities from implementing wide-ranging non-discrimination policies, follows a scattered and heated debate across colleges nationwide on what constitutes religious discrimination.
HB1617, now awaiting Gov. Bob McDonnell’s (R) signature, asserts: “A religious or political student organization may determine that ordering the organization’s internal affairs … 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 bars higher education institutions from discriminating against student groups who exercise this right to discriminate. A similar bill was introduced by Republican State Rep. Mark Pody in Tennessee earlier this week.
“Our concern with the bill is it allows discrimination with publicly accessible funds,” said Kevin Clay, a spokesman for Equality Virginia, to Metroweekly, expressing concern about the impact on LGBTQ students. “This protects the student organizations, not the individual students.”
In recent years, Christian student groups have repeatedly clashed with campuses’ non-discrimination or “all comers” policies, often involving the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF), a national evangelical campus ministry. Challenges have been brought against IVCF chapters on 41 college campuses, often due to the strict adherence to a “Basis of Faith” clause required for group leaders. In the past year alone, the University of Michigan, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and Tufts University all saw conflicts when this clause was found in violation of the university’s “all comers” policy for student groups. Many public colleges in Virginia, including James Madison University and the College of William & Mary, have similar non-discrimination policies that would be jeopardized if the governor signs this bill.
In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court took on a constitutional challenge by the Christian Legal Society—a student organization that required subscription to a “Statement of Beliefs” preventing LGBTQ students from becoming members—against a school non-discrimination policy. The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ) filed an amicus brief, along with IVCF, supporting the group’s “religious freedom.” The majority opinion on Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, however, authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, ruled that university’s “all comers” policies were “reasonable, viewpoint-neutral condition on access to the forum,” and therefore not in violation of the First Amendment.
While that case awaited review by the Supreme Court, in Virginia, state Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli sent a letter to colleges advising that only the state legislature can ban discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. (Cuccinelli’s actions as attorney general that line up with the Christian Right agenda include targeting abortion clinics and unsuccessfully challenging the federal health care law in 2011, with the ACLJ’s support.) The Virginia state constitution does not include sexual orientation in its non-discrimination clause and legislation to remedy this has repeatedly failed. This hostile history makes this bill additionally worrisome to the state LGBTQ community.