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Oklahoma Passes Law to Protect Religious Student Groups’ Freedom of Association

Religious student organizations at public colleges and universities in Oklahoma will enjoy renewed protection for their freedom of association rights on campus under new state legislation. Oklahoma Governor Mary Fallin signed HB 2873 (PDF) into law this week after both houses of the state legislature approved the bill unanimously.

The legislation was sponsored by Senator Greg Treat and Representative Tom Newell and co-authored by Senator Dan Newberry, Senator Ron Sharp, Representative Sally Kern, and Representative John Bennett. The law reads:

A. No public institution of higher education may take any action or enforce any policy that would deny a religious student association any benefit available to any other student association, or discriminate against a religious student association with respect to such benefit, based on that association’s requirement that its leaders or members

1. Adhere to the association's sincerely held religious beliefs;

2. Comply with the association’s sincere religious observance requirements;

3. Comply with the association’s sincere religious standards of conduct; or

4. Be committed to furthering the association's religious missions, as such religious beliefs, observance requirements, standards of conduct or missions are defined by the religious student association, or the religion upon which the association is based.

This new law, which provides a cause of action for students and student organizations whose rights may have been violated, goes into effect on November 1.

With the passage of HB 2873, Oklahoma has become the sixth state to pass protection for religious student groups’ rights since 2011. Ideally, legislation like this would not be necessary. But it is needed in light of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In Martinez, the Court held that a public university could require its student organizations, including belief-based organizations, to accept any student as a voting member or leader, regardless of whether the student openly disagrees with or is even hostile to the group’s fundamental beliefs.

Hopefully, more states will follow Oklahoma’s example.

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