Area members of the state House supported a bill that says public colleges and universities cannot deny benefits to student religious associations based on requirements that members uphold certain beliefs.
State Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, said the bill gives students the right to associate based on their deeply held religious beliefs.
Alferman said he does not think a Jewish fraternity should be required to admit someone who is Catholic into the organization. Likewise, a pro-life group should not be required to admit a pro-choice person, he added.
The Missouri bill is called the “Student Freedom of Association Act” and was sponsored by State Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield.
About 35 other states have something similar to this bill, Alferman said, adding that people have the right to associate with whom they want.
This is not a partisan issue, he said, adding that it passed with a bipartisan majority with 117 yes votes and only 38 no votes. It is now in the Senate.
It says that no public institution of higher learning can deny benefits that are available to other student organizations simply because the organization requires its members and leaders to adhere to certain beliefs.
Benefits could include use of facilities, channels of communication and funding, the bill says.
State Rep. Dave Hinson, R-St. Clair, said universities across the country have adopted policies that organizations have to accept everyone.
Under that scenario, fraternities would have to accept females because no one could be prohibited from joining a group, Hinson noted.
But he said the problem is that religious organizations have been “targeted” the most by these policies. If these policies are going to be enforced they should be enforced against all groups, not just religious ones, he said.
Hinson also voted in favor of the bill. If religious groups are told they have to accept everyone, other groups should be told the same things, Hinson added. Religious groups should not be singled out, he said.
A religious group is no different than any other group, whether it is Kiwanis or Rotary, that asks its members to uphold certain beliefs and values, he said.
He said he does not think groups should have to accept someone who has opposing views. It is similar to a fraternity or sorority requiring members to take pledges, Hinson added.
State Rep. Paul Curtman, R-Union, said he voted in favor of the bill because it was a “common sense” measure that embodies what the Founding Fathers wrote into the Bill of Rights about liberty.
The government is not supposed to create laws that prohibit the free exercise of religion, Curtman noted.
There has to be equality under the law in terms of how religious groups are treated, he said. There is a problem if a religious group is treated differently than other organizations, Curtman said, adding that other organizations have rules on who can and cannot join. Curtman said he does not see why a religious organization cannot have similar rules, saying the United States has a strong history of protecting religious groups no matter their beliefs.
State Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, had not had a chance to review the bill.
Moreover, the bill would prohibit an institution of higher learning from “substantially burdening a student’s exercise of religion unless the institution can demonstrate that application of the burden is in furtherance of a compelling interest of the institution and is the least restrictive means for doing so.”