News (USA)

Virginia Senate approves bill to allow discrimination by university clubs

RICHMOND, Va. — A bill that would allow publicly funded college groups to discriminate in their policies and membership was approved in the Virginia state Senate on Tuesday.

The bill (SB 1074), approved by a vote of 22-18, allows college clubs and organizations to define their own doctrines and “only persons committed to that mission should conduct such activities.”

Equality Virginia has condemned the bill saying, though the first amendment protects free speech, it should not allow publicly funded student groups to advocate any ideas they choose, particularly ideas that could discriminate.

Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), the bills patron, said during session that the bill “is content and viewpoint neutral … it applies equally to liberal and conservative groups.”

Cited as a way for college groups to form free of outside influence, Obenshain said “this is a simple policy, it’s not to do anything but promote student interests in student groups…” He went on to make the comparison that a non-vegan would and should not be allowed to lead a vegan club.

Fears of groups being allowed to form around discriminatory actions were also apparent.

Sen. John Edwards (D-Giles County) used the example of a students forming a Catholic group. If a member believed in most of the stances of the Catholic Church, but disagreed with others, the group would have the right to remove that member. “This bill attempts to prohibit anti-discrimination polices with regard to overseeing student activities,” said Edwards. “It offends the academic freedom of our universities.”

Other senators were less subtle in their claims about the bills target.

Sen. Adam Ebbin (D-Arlington), Virginia’s only openly gay legislator, said the bill was developed to support anti-gay groups on publicly funded campuses.

“Virginia law and Federal Law allow discrimination against gay people, and that’s what this bill is about – plain and simple,” said Ebbin. “It’s not about freedom of expression, because groups are allowed to express themselves any way they want. It’s about using tax payer dollars to fund discrimination.”

A similar bill, HB 1617, passed the House with an overwhelming majority at the end of January.

Kevin Clay, Communications Coordinator for Equality Virginia said they were disappointed with the final vote, but appreciated the efforts of the senators who spoke out.“Excluding students from joining an organization is discrimination plain and simple and the true impact is to be seen here.”

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