Student leaders, gay rights group testify against controversial bill

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Student leaders and a Texas-based gay rights advocacy group voiced opposition Wednesday to a bill that would allow student organizations to exclude members based on race, gender or sexual orientation.

As filed, the bill would cut state funding to higher education institutions that require student organizations, including religious organizations, to “allow any student enrolled at the institution to participate in the organization, regardless of the student’s beliefs or status, including race, gender and sexual orientation.”

Speaking to the Texas House Higher Education Committee, which left the bill pending, State Rep. Matt Krause, R-Fort Worth, the bill’s author, said a substituted version of the bill eliminates mention of race, gender and sexual orientation. He said the bill was intended to prevent members who joined the organization for the purpose of undermining the organization from keeping their membership and attaining leadership positions.

“It was never our intent for this bill to approve of discriminatory practices or things of that nature,” Krause said. “We only wanted to make sure that student organizations on campuses of higher learning were not forced to accept into their ranks people who would seek to undermine or devalue the original stated purpose for which they were created in the first place.”

Although the substituted version of the bill omits mention of race, gender and sexual orientation, opponents still submitted critical testimony. Many said they had not seen the committee substitute, which was not made available before the meeting.

Mackenzie Massey, president of UT’s chapter of the Texas Freedom Network, an organization that supports civil liberties, said she believes the bill would violate the University’s core purpose to “transform lives for the benefit of society.”

“Discriminating against students based on the color of their skin, the people they build romantic relationships with or the gender marker on their birth certificate does not help transform lives for the benefit of society,” Massey said.

UT’s policy regarding membership in registered student organizations states that organizations may not deny membership “on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, gender, age, disability, citizenship, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression.”

However, the policy does state that “an organization created primarily for religious purposes may restrict the right to vote or hold office to persons who subscribe to the organization’s statement of faith.”

Daniel Williams, field organizer and legislative specialist at Equality Texas, an LGBT lobbying organization, said the bill grants religious student organizations the exclusive ability to exclude members based on race, gender and sexual orientation.

“Universities are workshops of ideas, laboratories of thought … we need a wide variety of viewpoints to exist within the university,” Williams said. “But privileging one viewpoint over another negates that idea.”