A bill designed to protect the religious liberty of student groups on college campuses died in the House Education Committee Jan. 27 on a party-line vote of 7-6. The legislation, House Bill 1048, aimed to protect the rights of religious groups to choose leaders who share their core beliefs or standards of conduct.
“It’s common sense and basic religious liberty, not discrimination, for a religious group to want its leaders to agree with its religious belief,” explained Jenny Kraska, executive director of the Colorado Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the Church in Colorado, who supported the bill. “Religious liberty means that a religious group can define its beliefs and leadership criteria without governmental interference.”
Proponents, during hours of testimony, argued that religious groups are being targeted.
“There are religious student groups on campuses that are not being treated fairly,” according to bill sponsor state Rep. Kevin Priola, R-Henderson, a parishioner of Immaculate Heart of Mary Church in Northglenn, in his opening comments at the hearing. “It’s only natural that a religious group would want its leaders to agree with their firmly held religious beliefs.
“I think we can all agree that a Democratic student group should not be forced to accept a Republican as their group’s leader,” he added, demonstrating that other student groups may require leaders to share their political, cultural and social beliefs.
Similar legislation has been enacted in other states with broad bipartisan support and “I’m proud to say this bill has already received bipartisan support,” Priola said, acknowledging Senate sponsor, Sen. Lois Tochtrop, D-Colo.
“Many states have passed similar laws … (including) Arizona, Idaho, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia,” explained David Hacker, senior legal counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, who was among the slate of experts testifying. “Each of these states passed their bills in response to problems that were experienced by students on campus, and Colorado is no different.”
Last year the ADF was called upon to assist a pro-life group on the campus of the University of Colorado at Boulder, Real Choices, when they were ousted from their campus office space by the administration because one of its leaders, who didn’t agree with its Christian beliefs, filed a suit. The university eventually backed down after threat of legal action.
Also testifying in support of the bill were representatives from Catholic groups at CU-Boulder including the Aquinas Institute for Catholic Thought, Fellowship of Catholic University Students; and Matt Boettger, director of formation at the Aquinas Institute, director of campus ministry and president of Religious Campus Organizations that represents some 35 religious and spiritual student groups on campus.
“Without religious freedom, campus ministry will cease to exist. This will not only have great consequences for students seeking religious community but the university as a whole,” he said, noting that it can impact student retention.
Universities were created by the Church to be places of learning, debate and discussion, Priola said.
“Religious groups help to ensure diversity on college campuses and provide a supported place for religious students who are away from home,” he said.
Following the vote, Priola said he will continue to work to protect the religious liberty of student groups.
“I was very disappointed in the outcome of the vote on HB-1048,” he said. “I believe there is a strong bias against religion by many members of the committee and in the Legislature.”
He believes proponents won the debate “hands down.”
“The opposition,” he said, which included American Civil Liberties Union of Colorado executive director Nathan Woodliff-Stanley and homosexual students who argued the bill was discriminatory by rejecting them as leaders and forcing them to embrace faith statements they find offensive, “had to resort to arguing against the straw man of membership in an organization, which wasn’t a part of the bill. I firmly intend to bring the bill back next session.”