Missouri Mulls Bill That Would Protect Campus Christian Groups From Losing Benefits Over Membership Policy

Missouri is considering a piece of legislation that would prevent its academic institutions from punishing religious student groups that restrict their membership on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Known as House Bill 104, the proposed legislation has passed the House in March and is being considered by the Senate. The bill, also called the "Student Freedom of Association Act," was introduced by Representative Elijah Haahr, a Republican representing Missouri's District 134.

HB 104 prohibits public colleges from taking any action or enforcing any policy against religious student groups that seek to limit their membership based upon their sincere religious convictions.

"No public institution of higher learning shall [deny] a religious student association any benefit available to any other student association, or discriminate against a religious student association with respect to such benefit, based on that association's requirement that its leaders or members adhere to the association's sincerely held religious beliefs, comply with the association's sincere religious observance requirements," reads the bill in part.

"No public institution of higher learning shall substantially burden a student's exercise of religion unless the institution can demonstrate that application of the burden to the student is in furtherance of a compelling interest of the public institution of higher learning and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling interest."

Haahr's bill appears to be inspired by the results of a U.S. Supreme Court decision back in 2010 when the country's highest court ruled that public universities could bar funding for religious student groups if they violate campus antidiscrimination policies.

In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that the University of California, Hastings College of Law, could bar the religious student group from funding for not allowing non-Christians full membership.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg delivered the opinion of the Court, with Justices Breyer, Stevens, Sotomayor, and Kennedy joining.

"In requiring CLS — in common with all other student organizations — to choose between welcoming all students and forgoing the benefits of official recognition, we hold, Hastings did not transgress constitutional limitations," wrote Ginsburg.

"CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings' policy. The First Amendment shields CLS against state prohibition of the organization's expressive activity, however exclusionary that activity may be. But CLS enjoys no constitutional right to state subvention of its selectivity."

Across the nation debates have occur over the effect of "All comers" policies on student group membership, as religious organizations argue that they should be allowed to have only believers of the same faith as members or leaders.

In November 2010, Vanderbilt University attempted to implement rules that would force religious student organizations to allow all people to run for leadership positions, regardless of whether or not the student organizations' rules allowed it.

By 2012, groups spoke out against the measures at Vanderbilt and continued their opposition through legal means as well as student-led protests.

Bill Choate, collegiate ministries coordinator for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, was wary of the policy and its implementation. In a 2012 interview with the Baptist Press, Choate explained his concerns.

"If faith can't be one of the criteria [for leadership], we have a major crisis," said Choate. "For months we thought the university would back away from this ridiculous position, but now it looks like they may not."

In 2014, California State University threatened to remove official recognition from InterVarsity Christian Fellowship as the West Coast academic institution moved to have an "all-comers" policy adopted.

Greg Jao, national field director for the Northeast InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, told The Christian Post in an interview last year that he was concerned about the move.

"If Cal State wants to be a diverse, tolerance-inclusive school, which we support, and we think it should be, we hope it will reconsider its role so that it's actually welcoming and inclusive of religious students as well," said Jao.

Secularist groups have expressed concern at HB 104, believing that if enacted the bill will stop public colleges from enforcing antidiscrimination policies.

In an emailed "Missouri Action Alert," Americans United for Separation of Church and State called on supporters to lobby the Legislature to defeat HB 104.

"HB 104 would give religious student groups unprecedented exemptions regarding anti-discrimination policies," stated Americans United.

"Like the harmful so-called 'religious freedom' bills we've seen in the news recently, this bill cloaks discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. This bill has already passed the House, so this is the last chance for you to stop the bill in the Missouri legislature."