Who’s Discriminating?

House Passes Bill Allowing Student Groups To Limit Membership

Posted: February 1, 2013

HARRISONBURG — The House of Delegates passed legislation Thursday that would make membership in college political and religious organizations more exclusive.

Del. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, sponsored the bill, which passed by an 80-19 vote. It now heads to the Senate, where Sen. Mark Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, has filed the same legislation.

Obenshain’s bill passed the Senate Education and Health Committee by a 9-6 vote Thursday.

Gilbert said his bill is intended to protect the freedom of assembly and address the concept of so-called “all-comer” policies that open student organizations up to people of all beliefs.

Under such a policy, religious groups on campuses must accept atheists, for example, and College Democrats would have to welcome Republicans. Those students could then rise to leadership positions even though they do not share the vision of the group, Gilbert said.

“It’s a discriminatory policy,” he said. “[Colleges] may argue that they’re trying to prevent discrimination, but it actually prevents people from being able to freely associate.”

James Madison University will withhold comment on the bill until the General Assembly concludes its work, spokesman Bill Wyatt said.

For JMU to sanction an organization, according to the school handbook, membership must be open to all students and “will not be restricted on the basis of age, ability, ethnicity, gender, national origin, race, color, religion, veteran status, sexual orientation or political affiliation.”

In an interview before the session, Obenshain said the purpose of an all-comer policy is good, but it has been carried to “absurd lengths.”

“A small measure of common sense applied will go an awfully long way,” he said.

Contact Preston Knight at 574-6272 or pknight@dnronline.com

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