Virginia Enacts Equal Tolerance Law

Back to July 2013 Ed Reporter

Virginia Enacts Equal Tolerance Law

In March, Virginia passed a law protecting religious pluralism at state colleges. The Student Group Protection Act will protect religious and political groups on campus from the “all comers” policy that can negatively impact student groups. Virginia legislators determined that public colleges may not withhold funds from religious or political student groups that don’t accept all individuals wishing to join. The law effectively ensures freedom of association on Virginia public university campuses, allowing religious or political student organizations the right to define their doctrines and limit membership to those students committed to their missions.

Thirteen religious organizations were forced to leave campus and lost funding at Vanderbilt University, a private Tennessee institution, when the school said that anyone who wishes to join or lead a group must be allowed to do so, even when the member’s intent is to destroy the organization. The official Vanderbilt policy states: “Registered student organizations must be open to all students as members and must permit all members in good standing to seek leadership posts.” Vanderbilt fraternities and sororities are exempt from the rule and can still choose their membership. Critics of the Vanderbilt policy say that although it claims to protect “diversity,” it actually only protects diversity that falls into certain categories. Some call this intolerance.

At The College of William and Mary in Virginia, an opinion piece in The Flat Hat student newspaper stated, “Before you accuse [Governor] McDonnell of antiquated policies and unconstitutional discrimination, take a look at the law itself.” The student author wrote, “Clubs and groups discriminate on some level, intentionally or not, all the time. Now religious and political groups can, too.” (4-1-13)

The president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) stated, “Guaranteeing those groups the right to hold their leaders to belief-based standards is a vital part of ensuring that a pluralistic and diverse culture can exist on campus.”