Richmond, Virginia – Legislators in Virginia have passed a law that seeks to protect the right of Christians and other religious groups on university and college campuses to create their own membership criteria and to elect as leaders only those of the same faith.
The legislation, which was introduced by state Senator Mark Obenshain, a professing Christian, is said to be in response to situations that arose in other states where student groups were forced to include those of different religions or be found in violation of the school’s non-discrimination policy. It requires that “only persons committed to the organization’s mission may conduct certain activities.”
As previously reported, a Christian club at the University of Michigan was recently ousted from campus for refusing to change its constitution, which requires that its leaders be Christians. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship states that it was informed by campus officials that its policies conflicted with the university’s policies, which prohibit discrimination. Last year, numerous Christian groups at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee likewise faced opposition from administration for limiting its leadership to fellow Christians. Fifteen clubs lost recognition over their refusal to comply with the school’s all-comers policy.
Obenshain says he doesn’t want to see such struggles taking place in Virginia.
“It’s perfectly reasonable for an organization to expect its members to agree with, and be good examples of, the organization’s mission,” he told reporters. “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.”
Some colleges and universities have been using their non-discrimination policy as a means of mandating that student groups be all-inclusive by eradicating all membership criteria. Wes Barts of the Virginia Tech chapter of InterVarsity told Inside Higher Ed that his group allows unbelievers to attend meetings, but leaders must always be Christians.
“[O]ther 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,” he said.
Liz Canfield of Virginia Commonwealth University, a professor of gender, sexuality and women’s studies, said that she fears her school’s non-discrimination policy will now be discarded because of the new law. She asserted that it is beneficial for groups to have diverse beliefs and opinions.
“I don’t see a threat of a hostile takeover of religious groups, or LGBTQ groups, or political groups,” she stated. “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.”
Ohio approved a similar measure last year to protect student groups from punishment, and legislators in Tennessee are working on passing a law following the incident at Vanderbilt.
The Virginia bill now heads to the desk of Governor Bob O’Donnell to be signed into law.