RICHMOND -- The legislation slipped through the General Assembly without causing much of a stir, but now some student leaders are urging the governor not to sign a bill they fear gives campus organizations the right to discriminate.
"It's very vague and ambiguous and contrary to our beliefs as a university," Jeremy Thompson, president of the University of Mary Washington Student Government Association, said of the legislation he has asked Gov. Bob McDonnell to reject.
The legislation "would pretty much make our policy of inclusion null and void. It goes against a lot of what our university stands for," he said.
Billed as a way to make sure young Democrats don't surreptitiously seize control of a young Republican group, or vice versa, the legislation gives religious or political student organizations at public institutions the right to define their doctrines and limit membership to students committed to their missions.
The measure is supported by the Family Foundation of Virginia as a protection of the right to free association on campus. But the ACLU of Virginia says it will require public universities to recognize discriminatory organizations in violation of the First Amendment right to academic freedom.
"Personally, I think this legislation allows for legal discrimination," Virginia Tech SGA President Dustin Dorph said.
Dorph and Nick Onopa, the student representative on the Tech board of visitors, said the legislation caught students by surprise.
Onopa is one of about 12 current and former student representatives to the Tech board who signed a letter of opposition to McDonnell last week. Onopa said the legislation "is blind to the values of higher education."
He and Dorph questioned why the measure was passed without student input.
Dorph said he was among more than 100 Tech students who met with lawmakers in Richmond about a week before passage and he knows of no one in the group who was asked about the bill.
"The fact that it was done so quietly and not involving students makes me a little uneasy as to the real intentions of this," he said.
The ACLU sees the intention as an effort to override a U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld a university's right to require student organizations to abide by non-discrimination policies. The ruling came in a challenge to the policy at a public law school in California by a conservative Christian group that excluded gay and lesbian students.
The legislation before McDonnell includes the qualifier "to the extent allowed by law," but the ACLU, which has asked the governor to reject the bill, says that addition would not prohibit discrimination based on religion and sexual orientation.
A McDonnell spokesman said the governor has the legislation under review.
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, R-Harrisonburg, and Del. C. Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, passed by a wide margin in the House and a narrow one in the Senate.
The legislation targets non-discrimination policies common on college campuses that are under attack in other states, as well.
In Tennessee, a proposal in the state legislature threatens to remove recognition from Vanderbilt University's police department if the private university does not abandon its "all-comers" policy for university-sponsored clubs.
On his website, Obenshain, who is running for state attorney general, points to Vanderbilt's policy in explaining his support for the Virginia legislation.
"These 'all-comer' policies sound good, but they can force a religious, political, or any other organizations to accept members that are not committed to their values or beliefs — including into leadership positions in those groups," he writes.
Except for fraternities, sororities and gender-based club sports, most of Virginia's public universities require organizations to adopt non-discrimination policies, including UMW and Tech, and Virginia Commonwealth, Virginia State, Longwood, James Madison, Christopher Newport, Old Dominion and George Mason universities.
But policies at the University of Virginia and the College of William & Mary already include exceptions to non-discrimination policies that appear to align with the intent of the legislation, spokesmen for the schools said.
A UVa spokesman said an organization seeking to restrict membership would need to demonstrate that the restriction was necessary to perform activities related to the group's purpose. Any exception is limited in scope to a narrow field.
W&M recognizes the right of religious and political student organizations to restrict their membership to students with similar beliefs, a spokesman said.
Neil Branch, UVa student council vice president for organizations, said students have expressed concerns about the legislation but also see a positive side to it.
It would give more freedom to students to set the vision for their organization and "protect student groups whose opinion may be in the minority but still is vital," he said.
But UMW's Thompson said he worries about the unintended consequences of such a law and its potential to diminish intellectual curiosity.
"If you wanted to join the Libertarian group on campus," he said, as an example, "how would you be able to prove you were devoted to the mission of the organization? Would you have to register with the local Libertarian party? What is the litmus test in making that determination?"