Campus religious groups bill clears committee

After about 90 minutes of debate, the House Education Committee endorsed a bill touted as protecting the access of religious groups on college campuses.

Lawmakers voted along party lines to send Senate Bill 1078 to the House floor with a recommendation it pass.

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Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa

Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, said the bill is a response to what he described as a pending Boise State University policy that would not allow student religious groups that require their leaders to profess certain beliefs. Such groups should be allowed to function as official clubs — recruiting members, having access to meeting space and qualifying for funding.

“I think it makes (a campus) a better place when you have a multiplicity of voices in the discussion,” McKenzie said.

Boise State University alum Jesse Barnum testified that a religious group known as the Veritas Forum was denied club status because it required its leaders to profess belief in the group’s core Christian views. Another, existing religious club later lost its status because of its connection with Veritas, he said.

Religious groups are threatened without the bill, said Bruce Skaug, an attorney who has been involved in litigation on the issue.

“There is a real problem here,” Skaug said. “These groups will be off of the campus if we don’t do something by filing a lawsuit or passing this legislation.”

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The Idaho chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a University of Idaho lobbyist opposed the bill, saying it carves out special exemptions for religious groups.

“Senate Bill 1078 seeks to treat religious organizations differently than other student organizations by exempting religious organizations from policy which all other student organizations have to adhere,” Idaho ACLU Executive Director Monica Hopkins said.

“The Supreme Court says if you’re going to have a club, you’re going to treat them all the same,” said Joe Stegner, a former state senator. “That’s basically what the University of Idaho is trying to do.”

No one from BSU testified at Thursday’s hearing. “We see this as an issue that deals with all universities and we’ve left it to the others to be involved,” said Greg Hahn, BSU’s associate vice president for communications and marketing.

Debate was wide ranging, with some describing the bill as a First Amendment issue and others expressing concern the legislation could protect groups such as witches or the Taliban.

McKenzie, an attorney, said the bill would not offer protection to any group that would advocate or use violence.

Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, attempted to continue the hearing until Monday, but committee members pushed for a vote. The bill has already cleared the Senate 30-5, and next heads to the House floor for consideration.

Disclosure: Idaho Education News is under the Boise State’s College of Education, and its reporters are Boise State employees.

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