Sorry, Texas, But Letting Student Groups Discriminate Is Not the Same As “Religious Freedom”

According to ThinkProgress on Thursday, there’s a new trend showing up in some more Republican state legislatures: allowing college student groups the ability to refuse membership for any reason. Or, as TP puts it:

The Texas House has approved a bill that would allow student organizations at any of the state’s public universities to willfully violate nondiscrimination policies and refuse membership to whomever they choose. According to the amendment from Rep. Matt Krause (R), student organizations deny membership to students according to the following criteria:
(1) who demonstrates opposition to the organization’s stated beliefs and purposes; or
(2) whose membership in the organization: (A)would affect in a significant way the organization’s ability to advocate public or private viewpoints; or (B) is designed for the subversive intent of undermining the organization’s ability to assemble for its stated purposes.

The bolded section (emphasis theirs) is the important stuff, and where discrimination comes in: all a group would have to do to remove a student is to say that they don’t represent the right “viewpoints.” In a perfect world, this would only serve to hurt serious troublemakers, but as ThinkProgress points out, in execution “this would allow discrimination based on any characteristic, including even race.” Yet, TP indicates that Krause may be motivated by an anti-gay agenda, given his history of legislation. Indeed, any anti-gay religious group could easily make a case that LGBTQ members compromise their mission, and there you have it – the policy ends up being about discrimination.

The strangest thing about this situation may be that Texas is not alone. Tennessee considered legislation a few months ago that “would prohibit state universities from requiring campus religious groups to not discriminate.” And Virginia actually passed legislation with the following language:

To the extent allowed by state and federal law:
1. A religious or political student organization may determine that ordering the organization’s internal affairs, selecting the organization’s leaders and members, defining the organization’s doctrines, and resolving the organization’s disputes are in furtherance of the organization’s religious or political mission and that only persons committed to that mission should conduct such activities; and
2. No public institution of higher education that has granted recognition of and access to any student organization or group shall discriminate against any such student organization or group that exercises its rights pursuant to subdivision 1.

The fact that this seems to be taking off in so many different areas suggests a few things. One is that there seems to be a real fear of LGBTQ students encroaching on “their” spaces. That fear is obviously silly – why would a queer student waste time “spying” on some Christian group that doesn’t want them? This is college, not third grade – but in a broader sense, LGBTQ people have been making inroads in various previously closed-off areas of American society, like the institution of marriage or the military. To a conservative who sees homophobia as “traditional values,” that can seem like encroachment on their “traditions” or “way of life.” That twisted “logic” is ultimately just a demonstration of how prejudice can warp one’s reasoning, but it does explain why this tactic is so popular for people with these prejudices.

The other explanation is a more pragmatic one: this is a round-about way to achieve the deeper conservative goal of LGBTQ exclusion, basically making it as hard as possible to be LGBTQ anywhere, presented in the most palatable way possible. If they can just make it about “religious freedom” and about “conscience,” they can get more people on board. Even a lot of people who are for LGBTQ equality might be okay with letting an anti-gay Christian student group be anti-gay, so long as they keep it to themselves.

But there’s the rub: by nature, they are not “keeping it to themselves.” Not when it comes to colleges. The real problem here comes from the fact that these universities are required to continue funding these groups, which essentially means that the students excluded from them are funding their own discrimination with their tuition fees. Even if literally all the university is giving them is a room to sit in, or a quad to protest on, maintaining those buildings still comes out of students’ tuition. This is why the ACLU, far from seeing the matter as one of religious freedom for anti-gay students, has taken sides against these kinds of bills.

via ThinkProgress

Rep. Matt Krause (R-TX) via ThinkProgress

If the university if public, they’re also using taxpayer money. This is why public K-12 schools generally aren’t allowed to do much more for religious student groups than give them access to the same bulletin boards as other groups and let a faculty member babysit (but not take any active part in the club). But the very nature of colleges compared to high schools makes that difficult at the former. Either way, though, taxpayers should not have their money used to further discrimination.

And ultimately, no matter how much some anti-gays may tell themselves that this is just about individuals, not about pushing their ideas on everyone, it does promote a special kind of inequality when you find that you are being forced to be complicit in it, simply by paying tuition fees It says a lot about the status of the LGBTQ community that we are once again expected to just put up with it and fork over our money in the name of someone else’s – but clearly not our own – “religious freedom.”

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Rose is a 24-year-old Detroit native currently living in Boston, where she is working on her master's degree in musicology. Classical music, history, 1960s rock bands, cartoons, cats, Diet Coke, old movies and the Detroit Tigers are just a few of her favorite things. Besides Autostraddle, she works as a streaming reviewer for Anime News Network and has also written for Bitch and her own media-analysis blog.

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24 Comments

  1. Thumb up 1

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    I’m a little torn about this issue. As far college student groups are concerned, I certainly wouldn’t have wanted my funding to go towards a group I’m excluded from. I don’t even think women’s groups should be able to exclude men.

    On the other hand if one of the barriers to marriage equality is this insane idea that gay people are going to force their way into bakeries and churches, then I’m all for allowing “religious” exemption. I understand that being excluded from public business can be a larger issue, such as it was in civil rights, but I don’t think that’s the case here. I think it’s something media and public opinion will take care of over time. We give you the right to religious exemption and we use our right to report on it.

    I’ll admit to not thinking very highly of religious people. I’ve found the whole institution illogical long before I reached puberty and gayness, so if they want to live in their own bubble it’s fine by me.

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    I was reluctant to say anything on this article, but your post Jessie reflect view very similar to my own so I guess it’s alright. There is a difference between exclusion from a private club and being denied equal opportunity for employment or public services. While it’s true that with universities it’s a little more blurry since you do pay tuition for college, were still talking about clubs not benefits. If you’re gay and having to pay for a college that allow religious groups who deny membership to gays, is that really any worse that being an anti-gay religious straight person and paying for the same college to let pro-gay groups operate as well?

    I agree that this law is prejudiced, built around unfound fears of gay ‘infiltration’, and rather unnecessary, but unless it forces school to only allow student groups that represent “tradition values’ space on campus than I don’ really see the threat. If most individual members of either group what no no part in with the other group, how exactly could this bill create any new problems?

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      That picture was definitely taken at Kenyon College. Last October the rainbow flags hanging outside of Unity House were stolen, torn up, and found in the woods. Several faculty members donated 200 handheld pride flags, and a group of us lined Middle Path with them. Unfortunately many of those flags were also vandalized.
      The link under the picture goes to this website, but it doesn’t say where it’s originally from: http://thinkprogress.org/lgbt/2013/01/31/1524541/virginia-lawmakers-approve-bill-forcing-universities-to-fund-student-groups-that-discriminate/

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          Hi Ellen!

          I’ve always been told when I edit these articles to credit it as best I can with the information I can find, and since ThinkProgress didn’t include any information on who took it or where (so I had no idea it was from Kenyon – I just assumed it was a stock photo of some sort) I couldn’t give any more information. I generally only add captions beyond the link if the information is relevant to understanding the article, which is why I added the name of the guy sponsoring the bill to his photo but nothing to that one. But I will change the “via ThinkProgress” to instead say “via seniorphoto.tumblr.com” and link to your blog (unless you would prefer it just be removed entirely, and if so, let me know). I’m really sorry that happened to you and sorry if I made it worse by unknowingly continuing to deny you the credit you deserve.

  3. Thumb up 4

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    “The fact that this seems to be taking off in so many different areas suggests a few things. One is that there seems to be a real fear of LGBTQ students encroaching on “their” spaces. That fear is obviously silly – why would a queer student waste time “spying” on some Christian group that doesn’t want them?”

    Spying, no, but there are plenty of LGBTQ people who, aside from being openly LGBTQ, are otherwise pretty conservative both politically and religiously. They may have more in common with the members of a Christian Campus House than a GSA. Maybe they want to join a Christian student group because everyone they grew up with and go to church with is in that group.

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      As someone who lives in the bible belt this is definitely true.

      I understand what she’s getting at though, and it’s true of most organizations I think, not too many people are going to sit around in a college group with malicious intentions. It’s not worth the time. The people that are there are going to be there for a reason. Which is why I can really see this as discrimination.

      Also, this brings up the other good point of opting out of certain fees. I know there was a lot about this, I think, when UT wanted to open a LGBT resource center of some variety.

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      Thank you! If these measures hurt anyone, it’ll be the people sitting at the queer-religious intersection. They’re not only especially vulnerable, but also has the power to change preconceptions about what it means to be queer.

      Not only that, but groups of people who are already widely prejudiced against could find themselves marginalized. It’s not like universities don’t already allow students to kick out disruptive people.

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      I’m well aware that LGBTQ people can be religiously or politically conservative, but if a student group is explicit enough in its dislike of LGBTQ students to kick people out of it, why would even a queer person who agrees with them on other theological or political matters want to be a member? That’s what was puzzling me about it.

      And indeed, if they still want to connect with those other students in the group in spite of their homophobia, they’re clearly not doing it out of some desire to spy on or undermine the group – which seems to be the fear motivating these laws.

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        “And indeed, if they still want to connect with those other students in the group in spite of their homophobia, they’re clearly not doing it out of some desire to spy on or undermine the group – which seems to be the fear motivating these laws.”

        Yes. I completely agree with this.

        “I’m well aware that LGBTQ people can be religiously or politically conservative, but if a student group is explicit enough in its dislike of LGBTQ students to kick people out of it, why would even a queerperson who agrees with them on other theological or political matters want to be a member? That’s what was puzzling me about it.”

        Because that may literally be the only point of disagreement between the queer person and the Christian group. A Republican, evangelical, pro-life, pro-gun, pro-abstinence, pro-Creationism, pro-every-pet-Religious-Right-issue-you-can-think-of queer person (trust me, they do exist) is going to feel more at home in a conservative Christian student organization than in an LGBTQ organization where the only thing they have in common with anyone is the fact that they’re queer. I don’t understand it myself, but there are more people who fit this description than either the Religious Right or the LGBTQ community realize.

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          You’re probably right, it’s just hard to wrap my mind around it myself, as a non-religious queer person – even one who was raised around a lot of evangelical Christians.

          Also, I’ve seen with a lot of people who are excluded from that world due to one thing – like being gay or bisexual – that it’s often a catalyst to them beginning to question that worldview’s attitudes with regard to at least a few other things. I know there are people who don’t do that, and probably more than we realize, but it still puzzles me.

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          And I want to point out that these groups aren’t monolithic. Some people may be supportive, others might not care. And some will be outright bigoted.

          These laws empower the bigots. Right now, a they have to show a person is active disruptive to be classified as such. But now they can claim that a person is being disruptive simply for existing.

          That’s a dangerous precedent. Aside from legally reinforcing bigotry (albeit in a “personal” way), it can be used to create a siege mentality in campus groups. One of the ways university life opens eyes is by allowing free access to different groups and their messages. And that becomes harder with laws like this, which enable groups to police meetings and activities based on “who one is”.

          So yea, awful law.

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      This still doesn’t address the issue of the group being a homophobic Christian group. Why would a LGBT person want to join that group for other reasons than to undermine or make a statement?

      Also I really dislike the word conservative being co-oped by religion. I am personally conservative in my behavior, but I’m not religious at all.

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        Maybe the LGBT person didn’t know they were queer when they got to college and joined the group. Even if they did, I assume most of these groups don’t talk homophobia 24/7. Closeted queer students, or students who haven’t figured out their sexuality yet, might still find it an environment that reflects most of their religious beliefs and make their friends within this religious community–even though ultimately it will not be a community that accepts their identity. Queer students don’t join these groups to make a political statement, but they still must negotiate the politics of their participation.

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          ::raises hand:: hiiii yes, as an alum of a texas public university who stayed active in a campus ministry group and was clueless about her queerness the entire time, this is a thing. I’m cautiously optimistic that the particular organization I was associated with wouldn’t go the route this article discusses, but while I was enrolled, acceptance of LGBTQIA individuals was never spoken about, much less endorsed as a good and positive thing.

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            If you were truly clueless then you would be accepted in the group as an assumed heterosexual person.

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            I think what NB was saying was that they join the group and then realize they’re LGBT and now have to make a decision to stay.

            In my case it’s the opposite. Often the only group available to join is a religious-based one or a non-religious openly homophobic one, so it’s either join those groups and put up with it, or don’t participate in that activity. For example, I’ve had to put up with a homophobic and sexist student design team in order to gain relevant work experience, and the only all-female softball team I’ve been able to find in my area is a church league that does prayer meetings after each game.

            So, yes, I could choose not to participate in these activities, I could choose to participate openly as the only LGBT member with all the bullshit that entails, or I could choose to participate in the closet and get what I need out of it. There’s no perfect solution.

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    Some students at the Tufts Coalition Against Religious Exclusion have been doing some really awesome work on this issue- check out tuftscare.wordpress.com for more info about Tufts and the national trend!

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      Seconding this! We at Tufts have been fighting a policy that similarly allows student religious groups to receive an exemption from the university’s nondiscrimination policy, and openly discriminate on the basis “gender, sexual orientation or other categories” as long they have a doctrinal basis for it. Students have been massively opposed to the policy, but it’s yet to be overturned. Please visit http://www.tuftscare.wordpress.com to learn more about the issue and what students are doing–we’d really appreciate it and we’d love to hear from you!

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    A) The capacity for cognitive dissonance required for a LGBT person to *want* to join any group that would make use of this law is just astounding.

    B) Good luck in Federal court, should this get passed. And conservatives wonder why the “states’ rights” message doesn’t resonate with anyone but their paleolithic base.

    C) Welcome to Texas.

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    This issue is huge. Some other places to get information about the ramifications for colleges and universities (public and private schools are affected)…

    http://www.thefire.org – working to reinforce “second amendment rights” on college campuses – let’s all say “ick” in unison now

    Vanderbilt University stood up for their “all comers policy” and is now getting hammered in the media – this is the reason for the TN attempt to put in new legislation. In addition the TN Legislature attempted to pull funding for campus police. Nice for an R1 institution with the only medical center designed to handle major traumas in a 150 mi radius.
    Info here:http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/10/vanderbilt-religious-groups_n_1416561.html
    here: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/04/20/vanderbilts-policy-change-confronting-discrimination-or-infringing-on-religious-freedom/
    and here: http://www.nashvillescene.com/pitw/archives/2013/03/05/under-attack-by-christian-right-vandy-fights-to-keep-its-police-force

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