It’s February, and that means students across the country are back on college and university campuses for a new semester. One of the highlights of campus life is joining student groups. But in some states, students at public universities could be denied the opportunity to participate in a student club because of who they are.
Across the country, state legislatures are considering bills that exempt religious clubs from nondiscrimination policies. Many colleges have “all-comers” policies that require officially recognized student groups to allow any student to join, participate in, and seek leadership in those groups. These policies ensure that your taxpayer dollars and students’ tuition fees don’t subsidize discrimination. But legislators across the country have introduced bills that would create a massive loophole in these nondiscrimination safeguards for religious groups. The result: student groups could discriminate against anyone who doesn’t adhere to their sincerely held religious beliefs, all while getting school funding and official recognition.
Initially aimed at excluding LGBTQ students from the leadership of campus Christian clubs, these bills allow religious student groups at public universities to also exclude students from membership or leadership positions because:
- They are the “wrong” religion, or;
- They don’t adhere to an organization’s statement of faith or standards of conduct. This could allow discrimination against nearly anyone for nearly any reason—for instance, because they don’t attend church often enough or because they are a single mom.
Religious freedom is the right to believe—or not—as we see fit. It doesn’t include a right to discriminate—and especially not while using taxpayer dollars or using the tuition fees of the very students who are being excluded. Religious student groups, of course, still have First Amendment rights on campus. They have been able to access school facilities for their meetings and use school bulletin boards to advertise their events like any other group. But they don’t have the right to force public universities to subsidize discrimination. If student groups want to discriminate, they shouldn’t receive public university recognition, tuition fees, or state taxpayer money to do so.
This isn’t the first time we’re seeing these bills in state legislatures. Both Kansas and Kentucky have passed similar bills in past years. But the number of bills has doubled in 2018 since last year, with 10 bills introduced already, compared to 5 in 2017 and 3 in 2016. Why has the number of student groups bills skyrocketed this year? We can’t be sure, but some are tied to bills pushed by legislators to respond to protests that shut down some alt-right and conservative speakers on campus in 2017. But sanctioning discrimination in the name of religion is never the right thing to do.
There’s one state in particular we’ve been watching closely: in Virginia, one of these bills, HB 1274, passed a subcommittee by a vote of 8-0. This bill would have allow discrimination by student groups against nearly anyone for nearly any reason that doesn’t conform with the group’s mission—it was as bad as it gets. But we have good news: this week, the House Education Committee left HB 1274 in committee, which means it’s most likely dead for the rest of the year.
But there are still nine more bills alive in other states. You can join us too in fighting these student groups bills that allow discrimination in the name of religion on public university campuses. Sign up for our emails and we’ll notify you if a bill like this one that uses religion to discriminate is moving in your state, and give you opportunities to fight back. We need your help to ensure that religious freedom is not used to as an excuse to exclude and discriminate on our state university campuses!