The University of Missouri demands that student groups stick to the school’s anti-discrimination rules.

Groups can’t deny a student membership based on things like race, religion or sexual orientation.

Missouri lawmakers may change that.

While Republican legislators say the school policy comes with good intentions, they argue it stifles the freedom of religious expression and association. That’s led critics to question the GOP’s intentions, fearing the end result of any change could be legalized discrimination against gay and lesbian students.

Two bills making their way through the Missouri General Assembly would allow student religious organizations to reject membership to anyone who doesn’t comply with the group’s religious beliefs and standards of conduct and doesn’t commit to furthering its religious mission.

Universities would be prohibited from enforcing policy that denies a religious student association benefits available to any other student association.

Similar legislation is being considered in Kansas and a handful of other states.

“We want to recognize our country was founded on religious speech and religious association,” said Missouri state Rep. Elijah Haahr, a Springfield Republican. “That must be protected.”

To its critics, the bill is an example of pushback against years of hard-fought progress on gay rights. Students who want to form exclusive societies are not prevented from doing so. The only question, critics argue, is whether groups that discriminate should enjoy official recognition — and the resulting public funding through student activity fees or the use of school facilities.

“This bill not only allows, but it requires, universities to turn a blind eye to blatant discrimination,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat. “We are essentially protecting organizations’ right to discriminate.”

The current debate stems from a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that determined a public university did not violate the First Amendment by withdrawing recognition from a Christian student group that excluded gay students.

Justice John Paul Stevens, writing for the majority, said groups that “exclude or mistreat Jews, blacks and women” must be tolerated in a free society. But “it need not subsidize them, give them its official imprimatur or grant them equal access” to university resources.

But universities around the country aren’t applying the same standard to all groups, said Joshua Hawley, an associate professor at the University of Missouri School of Law.

“Universities are singling out student faith groups and saying you and only you may not select your leaders based on your faith,” said Hawley, who recently was part of the legal team representing Hobby Lobby before the U.S. Supreme Court in its successful challenge of the federal health care law’s contraception coverage mandate.

“Meanwhile, sororities aren’t being forced to accept men. Fraternities are not being forced to accept women. Democratic groups aren’t being forced to accept Republicans. That is a form of discrimination.”

Proponents concede there have been no religious groups targeted on Missouri campuses. But they point to other states where universities have punished evangelical Christian student groups by revoking their official status.

Christian groups were stripped of recognition at California State University campuses last year because they refused to sign a nondiscrimination policy requiring clubs and organizations to open their memberships and leadership to all students. Similar actions were taken by Vanderbilt University in Tennessee.

“It’s not a hypothetical situation,” Hawley said. “It’s a real and present danger to student religious liberty on campus.”

In the Missouri Senate, Republican Sens. Kurt Schaefer of Columbia and Ed Emery of Lamar are co-sponsoring the legislation, which was approved earlier this month by the Education Committee on a party-line vote.

There was a time, Emery said, when people choosing to segregate themselves with those who shared their beliefs wasn’t seen as improper. But now, he said, certain groups are demanding that anyone who doesn’t share their worldview be silenced.

“These groups, which are usually pretty small groups like the homosexual community, are saying you have to accommodate us,” Emery said. “We don’t care if you don’t agree with us. You have to accommodate us.”

Hawley said the question is not “is this person gay, straight, bisexual or whatever,” but rather, “can they agree to a statement of faith.”

“This bill does not permit discrimination,” he said. “It actually is designed to prevent discrimination. It says you can’t single out people of faith, whatever the faith, and tell them they are not welcome on campus.”

Kansas Sen. Steve Fitzgerald, a Leavenworth Republican, told the Wichita Eagle the Kansas legislation may allow campus Christian groups to discriminate against gay students. But because a sincere Christian would know gay students could benefit from being part of a Christian group, he said, it’s unlikely they’d face discrimination.

“It’s like a hospital saying that you can’t come in because you’re sick,” he said. “It’s silly.”

Kyle Piccola, senior field organizer for the Missouri lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights group PROMO, believes the argument is simple.

“Every student that pays tuition also pays a student organization fee,” he said. “This fee goes into a pot and it is dispersed to various student organizations. We shouldn’t allow a student group to deny membership to a student that’s already paid to be a part of that group.”

Such bills, Piccola said, are the “last breaths of a dying beast. They are grasping to stop the inevitable.”

“The legislature should be focusing on ways to lift up Missouri’s universities,” he said, “not targeting groups of students for discrimination.”

The U.S. Supreme Court will issue a ruling later this year that could ultimately legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. But even if gay couples win the right to marry in Missouri, Piccola said, state law currently would permit them to be fired from their job, kicked out of their apartment or refused service at a restaurant for being gay.

The effort to add sexual orientation and gender identity to the groups protected by Missouri’s Human Rights Act has fizzled for years.

“The saying now is ‘married on Sunday, fired on Monday,’” he said. “Instead of taking a step backward, we should be working towards making Missouri a more welcoming place.”

Haahr, the Springfield Republican sponsoring the House version of the bill, says his goal is simply to ensure a robust debate on university campuses.

“Without these types of protections,” Haahr said, “we could end up with one majority viewpoint that every group on campus must subscribe to, and no diversity of thought.”

To reach Jason Hancock, call or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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©2015 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

Visit The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.) at www.kansascity.com

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