Bill Allowing Christian Student Orgs to Choose Membership Advances in Va. Legislature

February 11, 2013

A bill that would allow religious and political student organizations in public institutions to choose their own standards for membership continues to make its way through the Virginia Legislature.

Known as Senate Bill 1074, the proposed legislation would bar public educational institutions from determining the membership rules for religious and political student groups.


"Permits, to the extent allowed by law, religious or political student organizations at public institutions of higher education to determine that only persons committed to the organization’s mission may conduct certain activities," reads the official summary of SB 1074.


"The bill also prohibits, to the extent allowed by law, public institutions of higher education from discriminating against a student organization that makes such a determination."


Robert L. Shibley, senior vice president for the student rights watchdog the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The Christian Post that his organization supports the legislation.


"FIRE wrote a letter to legislators in support of SB 1074 and generally supports state laws that guarantee belief-based student groups at public universities the right to make belief-based decisions about their membership and leadership," said Shibley.


"The lack of this right harms the ability of groups to express their views effectively on campus. For instance, Vanderbilt‘s ‘all-comers’ policy actually restricts religious student groups from requiring leaders to lead Bible studies or worship. This is absurd and serves students very poorly."


Shibley was referring to Vanderbilt University of Nashville, Tenn., which in 2010 opted to implement a controversial "all-comers" policy for its religious student organizations. The policy stated that all religious student groups had to accept as members any registered student at Vanderbilt, even if they did not subscribe to their beliefs.


In a statement given to The Christian Post last year by Vanderbilt Senior Public Affairs Officer Amy Wolf, campus officials maintained that the "all-comers" policy respects religious organizations.


"We believe all members of a registered student organization should be eligible to compete for leadership positions, but it is up to each student organization to select its own leaders," read the statement in part.


Sponsored by Va. State Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), SB 1074 passed the State Senate last week with a vote of 22 yeas to 18 nays. From there it went to the House of Delegates where it was referred to the House Committee on Education on Monday.

SB 1074 is not without its critics, as some progressive organizations have denounced the bill as advancing discrimination against the LGBT community.


Kevin Clay, spokesman for the pro-gay organization Equality Virginia, told the site Campus Progress that "excluding students from joining an organization is discrimination plain and simple, and the true impact is to be seen here."


Shibley of FIRE told CP that the issue over student organizations being allowed to determine who can and cannot join is a growing debate at the legislative and academic levels.


"We are aware of efforts in similar states to pass similar legislation. Ohio successfully passed such a law," said Shibley, "I believe efforts are also underway in Tennessee, where the governor vetoed such a bill last year."


"It is not yet common for colleges to adopt all-comers policies, but the numbers are growing. The entire California State University system has adopted such a policy. Tufts has adopted a modified version of such a policy, and SUNY Buffalo has adopted all-comers. The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill considered such a policy, but ultimately rejected it."

Schools: Vanderbilt University University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill Tufts University