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Bill letting college clubs bar those with differing views advances


RICHMOND—A bill letting college religious and political clubs bar members who don’t share their views got another pass Monday from the Virginia Senate.

On a 21–18 vote, the Sen-ate passed a House bill from Del. Todd Gilbert that is the same as a Senate bill passed last week.

Proponents say it just lets college groups determine their own membership and leadership, and prevents a situation like what happened at Vanderbilt University last year, when a Catholic group left campus rather than admit non-Catholics. They say it protects freedom of religion.

“It is a freedom of association bill, the often forgotten part of the First Amendment,” said Sen. Mark Obenshain, R–Harrisonburg, who sponsored the Senate version.

Obenshain has said the bill relates to schools with “all comers” policies—i.e., they require clubs to admit all comers, regardless of whether those people believe in the club’s mission. Not all colleges in Virginia have such policies.

Opponents said the bill would let college groups discriminate.

They cited the case of Hastings College of the Law in California, where a religious group sought to require members to sign a “statement of faith”—which included, in part, opposing homosexuality and agreeing to refrain from sex before marriage—that the school said violated its non-discrimination policies. The college rejected the group, which then sued, saying the college’s policies violated its rights to free speech, expressive association and free exercise of religion.

The case wound up in the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in Hastings’ favor, saying that the school’s policy requiring school clubs to accept everyone was “viewpoint neutral.” Justices in the dissent said that school policy was a way to justify viewpoint discrimination against religious groups.

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D–Alexandria, said the bill would let college groups discriminate with public money.

“If they’re using university money to discriminate, that’s where I differ. The group can exist, they just shouldn’t be able to exclude people,” Ebbin said. “This bill is not about religion. It’s about using university money and us telling a university whether or not they can have a policy, and it begins a slippery slope.”

Sen. John Edwards, D–Roanoke, said the bill was unconstitutional because of the Hastings Supreme Court decision, although Obenshain said that wasn’t so, pointing to language in his and Gilbert’s bills that says colleges must allow religious and political groups to run their own affairs only “to the extent allowed by state and federal law.”

The Family Foundation has been pushing for Obenshain’s and Gilbert’s bills. They released a statement Monday calling the passage of Gilbert’s bill in the Senate “a tremendous victory.”

The group said that the Supreme Court’s ruling in Hastings upheld the school’s all-comers policy but didn’t require colleges to have a similar policy. The Family Foundation said most colleges in Virginia have policies that wouldn’t be affected by the legislation, but “this will ensure that those policies will remain in place in the future.”

With Monday’s vote, Gilbert’s House bill has passed both houses; Obenshain’s Senate version awaits House action.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245