Metro Weekly

House version of bill allowing student discrimination passes Va. Senate

The Virginia Senate today passed the House version of a bill to allow student groups and organizations at higher-educational institutions to discriminate with regard to whom they admit as members.

Barker.pngThree Democrats, including two from Northern Virginia, voted with 18 Republicans to approve HB1617 in a 21-18 vote, mirroring the Senate’s Feb. 5 vote on the upper chamber’s own version, SB1074, which passed 22-18.

The Democrats voting in favor of the bill were Sens. Phil Puckett (D-Norton, Radford, Bland, Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Tazewell, Smyth counties), Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City, Fairfax Co.) and George Barker (D-Alexandria, Fairfax, Prince William counties). Sen. Chuck Colgan (D-Manassas, Manassas Park, Prince William Co.) did not vote on HB1617, but did vote in favor of SB1074 last week.

Two of the chamber’s five moderate Republicans – Senate Majority Leader Thomas Norment (R-James City, York, New Kent, King and Queen, Surry, Isle of Wight counties) and John Watkins (R-Richmond, Powhatan, Chesterfield counties) – voted against both bills.

Under either bill, public institutions of higher education will not be permitted to deny funding or other resources to student organizations that reject potential members deemed to be not committed to “furtherance of the organization’s religious or political mission.” 

HB1617 passed the House of Delegates Jan. 31 on an 80-19 vote, with the support of nearly half the Democrats in the lower chamber. SB1074 has been referred to a House subcommittee, but is expected to receive a full vote by the House within the next week.

Both measures will then be combined into one bill and submitted to Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) for his signature, according to Kevin Clay, a spokesman for LGBT-rights organization Equality Virginia, which opposed the bill as it could potentially allow student groups to deny membership to LGBT individuals by claiming religious, moral or philosophical opposition to homosexuality.

“The effects of this law will become evident in the next few years,” Clay said. “We’ll keep monitoring it, and it’s up to the General Assembly to repeal the law in future sessions.”

In a Feb. 11 interview with Metro Weekly, Barker, as one of the Democrats supporting the measure, said he voted for both bills to allow student organizations flexibility in who they may admit as members. He cited possible examples where a person opposed to an organization’s mission might try to join the organization in order to disrupt meetings or sabotage it from the inside, such as a president of the Young Republicans joining the Young Democrats with ill intent, or a Jewish organization being forced to admit a person who expresses anti-Semitic beliefs.

“We shouldn’t force someone who is going to be antithetical to the group’s mission to be allowed to join that group,” Barker said of the reasoning behind his support for the bill.

When asked about the possibility that the legislation would permit organizations to discriminate against LGBT people, Barker said that there will be other groups that are more welcoming to those individuals that LGBT people can join. Furthermore, he said, groups that do openly discriminate will see a backlash, citing as an example, the community backlash following a Washington Post story on the Republican Women of Clifton where the organization offended Muslims by hosting a talk focusing on “how the hijab is a catalyst for Islamism because it leads to the mentality of passive terrorism and silent support for Sharia law in Western societies.”

“Those groups that do that will damage themselves,” Barker said. “It will be highly counter-productive. We’re seeing examples of that when organizations set up discriminatory policies.”

[Photo: Sen. George Barker (Courtesy of the Virginia General Assembly)]

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