One of the highlights of campus life at colleges and universities is joining student groups. It was for me when I went to college – the Jewish Culture House, the mock trial team and the Hillel community welcomed me with open arms. But thanks to several state bills advancing in 2019, students at public universities could be denied the opportunity to participate in some student groups because of who they are.
So far this year, Arkansas, Iowa and South Dakota have signed these bills into law. Several more states, including Missouri, Montana and Texas, have passed these bills through committees.
How do these bills sanction discrimination? Many public colleges and universities 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 don’t subsidize discrimination and that mandatory student activity fees paid by all students support groups that are open to all students.
But legislators across the country are pushing 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 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.
- They don’t adhere to an organization’s statement of faith.
- They don’t follow the organization’s “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, 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, but this year, the number has skyrocketed. The number of these bills has more than doubled since last year, with a total of 22 bills so far. Last year, there were 10 bills introduced, compared to 5 in 2017 and 3 in 2016.
Why do the number of student groups bills continue to balloon? We can’t be sure, but most are tied to a conservative model bill pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to respond to protests against some white nationalist and conservative speakers on campuses. Regardless of students’ rights to free speech, sanctioning discrimination in the name of religion is never the right thing to do. Legislators should strip these harmful student groups provisions from any bills about students’ free speech rights.
You can join us too in fighting these student groups provisions that allow discrimination in the name of religion on public university campuses. Sign up for our emails. 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!