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Bill for college clubs: religious freedom or discrimination?

The state Senate has passed a bill that either protects the freedom of college religious clubs, or blatantly allows them to discriminate.

Sen. Mark Obenshain’s bill says that any “religious or political student organization” may run its internal affairs, determine its doctrines and choose its leaders and members, and can decided that “only persons committed to that mission should conduct such activities.” The bill also says colleges and universities can’t stop such groups from doing so.

In plain language, that means that, for example, a Baptist student group could decide to admit only Baptists.

In some colleges now, Obenshain said, rules prohibiting discrimination prevent student groups from requiring their leaders to share the core beliefs or values of the group.

“For example, a vegan group couldn’t require that all its members be vegans,” Obenshain said.

He believed the bill was needed to help student groups protect their missions. No College Democrat group wants to find themselves infiltrated with Republicans, for example.

But opponents said it lets college groups discriminate while receiving public money and backing.

“What this bill does is say that a university, once it recognizes a student organization, cannot oversee the activities of that student organization if it is a political organization,” said Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. “It cannot establish an antidiscrimination policy … Certainly our universities ought to have the right to govern and oversee student activities that are recognized by the university.”

Sen. Adam Ebbin, D-Alexandria, said the bill would make it a lot easier for groups to discriminate.

“I don’t think this is just about religion. I think it’s about more than that. Virginia law and federal law allow discrimination against gay people, and that’s what this bill is really about … it’s about using taxpayer dollars to fund discrimination,” said Ebbin, who is gay.

While discriminatory groups exist, he said, “that doesn’t mean we should lend them support.”

Ebbin also said the bill dictates policy to colleges.

“This is telling the universities and colleges what to do,” he said. “They can already have their own policies but we’re proscribing it. We’re going to be attacking the universities’ autonomy.”

Obenshain said his bill wasn’t intended to discriminate against gay and lesbian organizations.

“It’s about free association. It’s about academic freedom … it’s not a one way street, it’s a two way street,” Obenshain said. “This is going to protect the rights of Baptist student groups to organize… it’s also going to protect the rights of LGBT organizations to organize.”

The bill passed on a 22-18 vote. A similar bill has also passed the House.

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