Committee advances religious student group bill

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's public universities would be barred from denying official recognition and other benefits to religious student groups seeking to restrict leadership positions only to those truly committed to their faith, under a bill making its way through the Senate.

Along party lines Monday, the Senate State Affairs Committee approved legislation supporters say is designed to protect religious-based clubs from arbitrary discrimination, specifically among groups seeking a statement of faith from their leaders. The bill does not set the same criteria on club membership.

Several Boise State University students affiliated with two campus Christian clubs argued religious groups by nature must have leaders who believe in the tenets of the faith. But they say their attempts to incorporate faith statements into bylaws has conflicted with university policy, threatening official campus recognition status and the access to the benefits afforded to other student groups.

"Religious beliefs are the purpose of the group," said Nate Jensen, a member of the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship at BSU. "These groups are discriminated against if they are not permitted to have student leaders who didn't stand for the same beliefs."

The bill is now headed to the full Senate, and along with it an opinion from the Idaho Attorney General concluding the legislation doesn't create conflicts with the Idaho Constitution.

Specifically, the bill would prohibit any of Idaho's four public universities from enforcing policies to deny religious student groups benefits afforded to other campus clubs based on the religious club's mandate that leaders "adhere to its sincerely held religious beliefs or standards of conduct."

But among officials from Idaho's college campuses, the legislation is unnecessary and creates the likelihood for discrimination against groups that don't want or need faith statements from leaders.

Kent Nelson, general counsel for the University of Idaho, said UI, Boise State, Idaho State University and Lewis-Clark State College already have policies in place barring discrimination student groups from discriminating in its membership or leadership.

If taken to an extreme, Nelson said the legislation could put colleges in a position of funding groups with objectionable goals and beliefs, like a club whose leaders take an oath in the belief in the primacy of the white race.

The legislation "mandates funding to groups limiting leadership roles to believers only," Nelson told the committee. "But it's clear (in law) that universities cannot discriminate in one fashion or another."

Universities collect so-called activity fees from students each semester, then divert a portion of that money to an organization that awards it to student groups. Boise State, for example, has more than 200 different clubs, some with a religious foundation but others with interests as varied as politics, guns or sports.

Five years ago, campus religious groups sued BSU in federal court, accusing the school of discrimination for denying student activity fees to groups like Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and others. The university defended its policy on grounds it complied with language in the state constitution forbidding state money going to religious organizations.

The two sides settled the dispute in 2009 by agreeing to let a similar case before the U.S. Supreme Court dictate future policy changes at the Boise campus.

The Supreme Court ruled in 2010 on a case involving the University of California and its religious student groups seeking to have potential members sign and oath statement of beliefs. The court sided with the university, declaring that all student groups needed to be treated the same.

Committee Chairman Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa and chief sponsor of the bill, said Idaho is among several states that are debating similar legislation or already have laws on the books.

Last month, the Virginia Senate prohibited public colleges from denying recognition to religious groups seeking to restrict membership, and a House committee in Tennessee recently approved a bill prohibiting university discrimination against religious student groups seeking a faith statement from members and leaders.