The Virginia House of Delegates voted 80-19 today to approve HB1617, a bill that would invite any religious or political university student group to discriminate as they please and still require the campus to providing them funding and access to campus facilities. This would make LGBT students particularly vulnerable to discrimination because universities’ protections for sexual orientation are not enforceable under Virginia law. Under this bill, though, even a KKK chapter could hypothetically form, use campus resources, and openly discriminate against non-white and non-Christian students on campus.
Here’s the text of the bill:
To the extent allowed by state and federal law:
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; and
2. No public institution of higher education that has granted recognition of and access to any student organization or group shall discriminate against any such student organization or group that exercises its rights pursuant to subdivision 1.
On most college campuses, student organizations must maintain a constitution that conforms to the university’s procedures, including its nondiscrimination policies. For example, James Madison University requires that all organizations obey the “policies, rules, regulations, and standards of the university,” such as its nondiscrimination policy, which includes sexual orientation. The College of William & Mary offers similar protections and requires student groups be open to all students.
Such policies are key because student organizations receive funding and use campus resources (like meeting spaces) that are funded by fees that all students pay; thus, all students deserve equal access to those campus clubs. Nondiscrimination policies have become a source of contention for conservative Christian student groups, like at Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University and New York’s University of Buffalo, who wish to exclude gay students from membership. In the 2010 case Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly answered this question in favor of nondiscrimination policies, ruling that “all-comers” policies are viewpoint neutral, and thus are no more unfair to Christian groups than any other student groups.
Conservatives have argued, however that nondiscrimination policies allow for “hostile takeovers” — in which students with opposing views infiltrate and assume power in the organization — but there’s no evidence to suggest that this is plausible, let alone that it ever happened. Members of an organization are still allowed to vote for their group’s leaders, even with discriminatory intent, if all students remain eligible. Any student group that can’t persist on its own merits probably doesn’t warrant use of student fees in the first place.
All 19 votes against the bill were cast by Democrats. It now advances to the Senate for committee consideration.