Bill excluding college club members sparks civil rights concerns - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

Bill excluding college club members sparks controversy, civil rights concerns

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) -

A bill on Governor Bob McDonnell's desk could allow religious or political clubs to choose who can join and who cannot, a move that has raised civil rights and discrimination concerns.

The proposal gives student groups the ability to limit memberships, allowing only "persons committed to [the organization's] mission," according to Senate Bill 1074. The bill applies to Virginia public universities, and would end a policy of including all students who seek memberships.

"Anyone should be able to join whatever club they want," said VCU student Brionne Burns in an interview Monday. "People at public schools shouldn't be excluded from joining any club."

The bill's chief patron, Sen. Mark D. Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg), said the point of the legislation is to protect free speech, and to keep subversive students from interfering with freedom of assembly.

"You may have a campus atheist group, but the school's Baptists and Pentecostals decide they want to take over the club's leadership," said Obenshain in a phone interview Monday. "It is not discrimination."

The ACLU of Virginia opposes the measure, contending that public schools cannot fund exclusionary student groups.

"What the bill does, is say, ‘you have a right to be funded, to engage in your discriminatory behavior," said Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, Executive Director of the ACLU of Virginia. "It's precedent set by the U.S. Supreme Court that student groups must operate with nondiscrimination policies."

Obenshain said the bill does not conflict with the Supreme Court since it does not allow for malicious or hateful discrimination.

"If you were excluding people from the College Democrats or College Republicans, for reasons that have nothing to do with the club's mission, you would be in trouble," Obenshain said.

Governor McDonnell is in the process of reviewing the legislation, and has not indicated if he will sign the bill.

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