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Wielding the Club

February 18, 2013

Should it be possible for campus Democrats to sign up for a campus Republican club just to disrupt its activities? Would Democrats really do so? Or would Jewish students try to take over the Roman Catholic organization? A bill passed this month in Virginia's Senate would seek to prevent such actions -- by letting student organizations at public colleges restrict their membership to students who agree with their stated agenda.

Critics, however, have suggested that the legislation is a bid to undercut campus anti-bias rules.

The bill, sponsored by Senator Mark Obenshain, a Republican, allows public college and university groups to rule that “only persons committed to the organization's mission may conduct certain activities”. Obenshain has argued that without such protections, groups could be undermined by members who did not agree with their mission. “It's pretty simple: a Democratic club shouldn't have to accept a Republican as a member and members of a religious group should be able to expect that their leadership will share the group's core commitments,” Obenshain said, according to the Roanoke Times. “It's perfectly reasonable for an organization to expect its members to agree with, and be good examples of, the organization's mission."  

The bill raises some of the same issues as those raised by the 2010 Supreme Court decision Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which upheld the University of California Hastings College of Law’s right to make an “all-comers” rule (which would require a group to admit any interested students, regardless of ideology) a condition of a group’s recognition by the law school. Many groups that violate an all-comers rule violate anti-bias rules as adopted by many public institutions.

The legislation is being praised by some religious groups. Wes Barts of Virginia Tech’s chapter of the nondenominational InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, said that a "careful reading" of the bill "indicates the intention to protect religious and political organizations from charges of discrimination over limiting the execution of certain activities to members who agree with their mission." Via e-mail, Barts said that although his own group’s activities were open to any student of any faith, “we ask students in leadership positions to be in agreement with our statement of faith, a short summary of our core theological beliefs.” Barts said that although Tech has been supportive of the group’s policy, “other InterVarsity chapters have lost their recognition as a student organization based on requiring student leaders to sign an agreement with our theological statement of beliefs.”

Obenshain did not respond to requests for comment on the legislation or to cite examples of students taking over organizations whose ideologies they rejected.

Critics of the legislation say that it undermines campus anti-bias policies and that it's not solving any problem. That's because, they say, students aren't trying to take over groups that they disagree with. Obenshain's office did not respond to requests for comment.

Max Blalock, the minister of William & Mary’s chapter of the Methodist group the Wesley Foundation, said that in his experience, members of other faiths joining religious groups had never been an issue. “[W] e have had Muslim, Catholic, and students unsure of what they believe participate in our ministry,” Blalock said via e-mail. “I have never been in fear that the college might force us to accept someone who did not share our faith, because we have no such requirements to participate in our ministry. Furthermore, we believe that as Christians, we are called by God, first and foremost to embody the unconditional love and grace of God for all people, not be gatekeepers as to who is in and who is out.”

Vicki Yeroian, former president of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Young Democrats, said that her experience with a political student organization made her unsure that the bill was necessary to prevent disruption or a “hostile takeover” by students opposed to the group’s mission. “Every student group [at VCU] is required to have a constitution or by-laws on university file,” Yeroian said via e-mail. “Technically, most groups should have a built-in defense from a hostile takeover in their constitution by outlining officer election procedures.”

Yeroian added that she had concerns about some of the bill’s implications. “If a student group did discriminate in their membership based on sexual orientation or gender identity, they could still have funding because state and federal law does not protect those individuals,” she said. “I guess I am fortunate enough to go to a diverse and accepting university like VCU, where one can assume that this is not happening in student groups.”

Twenty e-mails to campus political and religious groups, asking if any had experienced hostile takeover attempts, yielded few responses, and none saying that this had happened.

Liz Canfield, an assistant professor in the gender, sexuality and women’s studies department at Virginia Commonwealth University who has long been an advocate for gay students, said that the legislation “present[s] a threat to our nondiscrimination policy” by allowing organizations to exclude members. Canfield similarly dismissed the idea of outsiders posing a danger to the organizations. “[Student organizations] seem to do a pretty good job themselves of protecting their mission(s),” Canfield said via e-mail.

She added that diversity of opinions could be beneficial to a student group. “I don't see a threat of a hostile takeover of religious groups, or LGBTQ groups, or political groups,” Canfield said. “I’ve seen VCU students practice impressive coalitional organizing among radically diverse groups for a common cause, like ending violence, or environmental causes. Collaboration and coalition-building are skills that we should be in favor of building, not discouraging.”

 

 

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