Colorado Kills Bill to Protect Religious Groups on Campus

Voted down in a committee hearing, the bill sought to protect groups that require student leaders to adhere to religious beliefs and standards of conduct from institutional retaliation.

Father Peter Mussett, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center pastor/director of campus ministry at the University of Colorado-Boulder, listens during a Jan. 27 state Legislature committee hearing on religious liberty.
Father Peter Mussett, St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center pastor/director of campus ministry at the University of Colorado-Boulder, listens during a Jan. 27 state Legislature committee hearing on religious liberty. (photo: Wayne Laugesen)

DENVER — In a state bitterly divided by partisan politics, the Colorado Legislature’s Democratic majority rejected a bill that intended to uphold moral standards among leaders of religious groups at state universities and colleges.

If passed, the bill would’ve changed state law to protect campus groups from being defunded or decommissioned for requiring group leaders to adhere to religious beliefs and standards of conduct. Colorado’s House Education Committee killed the bill Jan. 27 on a party-line 7-6 vote.

The vote followed hours of testimony. Advocates of the bill argued that religious campus groups are threatened by administrators and activists who believe religious teachings — such as Catholic opposition to same-sex “marriage” — violate campus-diversity policies.

“The bill ensures basic religious liberty for religious groups on campus,” said state Rep. Kevin Priola, a Republican and Catholic who sponsored the bill. “It’s only natural that members of religious organizations want their leaders to agree with their beliefs.”

The issue arose for Colorado legislators after administrators at the University of Colorado-Boulder quietly ousted a religious group from campus office space last year because it required officers to agree with religious principles. The university eventually backed down after threat of legal action.


Targeting Religious Groups

Some argue that what happened at UC-Boulder is part of a growing national trend.

“These things are happening all over the country, and it’s only to decommission groups that are religious,” said Brian Walsh, executive director of the Ethics & Public Policy Center’s American Religious Freedom progam in Washington.

David Hacker, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defending Freedom, agreed with Walsh in his assessment that higher-education institutions throughout the country are beginning to challenge whether religious organizations should require moral and philosophical standards among appointed or elected officers. He said campus administrations want groups to tolerate students who rise to positions of authority and subsequently reject the core principles of the groups they lead.

“Religious groups are the targets,” Hacker told the Register, after the hearing. “We don’t see colleges going after environmental groups that expect their leaders to embrace environmental beliefs. Suppose someone joins an environmental group, advances to a leadership position and then advocates unregulated fracking. The university would understand if the group replaced that person. The same level of tolerance doesn’t apply if the core values are religious.”

Though Priola’s bill gained no traction in Colorado, on April 30, 2013, large majorities in the Tennessee Senate and House favored a bill that prohibited Vanderbilt University from interfering with campus religious groups requiring their leaders to profess religious beliefs. Known as the “All Comers” bill, the legislation told Vanderbilt to respect the beliefs of religious organizations or risk losing $24 million in state funding.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, said he opposed Vanderbilt’s policy toward religious organizations, but also opposed a law that would intervene in the affairs of a university. He vetoed the bill May 2.


Groups Hampered by Administration

At the hours-long hearing on Priola’s bill, the founder of the UC-Boulder chapter of Real Choices, a pro-life group, explained how a pro-abortion student expressed interest in joining the group and objected to its faith statement and pro-life mission.

“We had a difficult time,” said Yvonne Williams. “A student came to us and said, ‘I want to be part of the group.’ We showed this student our faith statement, and the student said, ‘I don’t agree with the statement’ and filed a discrimination charge with the university.”

Williams said the university officials withheld recognition of Real Choices because of its requirement that leaders embrace the faith statement and pro-life mission. Without institutional recognition, the effected groups cannot use office space, classrooms or other campus assets available to approved organizations. Williams said the university eventually backed down and reinstated her organization.

Beth Santo, speaking on behalf of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students (Focus) team at CU-Boulder’s St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center, testified the group needs protection in requiring leaders to embrace sobriety and chastity. She said the group had issues with a leader who was chosen and then rejected Focus values.

“Our leaders need to have harmony with the mission of our organization,” Santo said. “If my organization was required to accept anyone as a leader, with any set of beliefs, we could no longer affiliate with the university.”


Homosexual Rights Central to Issue

The primary basis of objection to the bill — support for homosexual rights — became clear when Rep. Millie Hamner, a Democrat who chaired the hearing, confronted advocates about their desire to maintain leadership that comports with religious values.

“Where would being gay fit into that?” Hamner asked. “That person would be allowed to become a member of leadership. But if this bill passed, a gay individual would not be able to lead.”

Members of FOCUS explained they would not object to a gay leader if that person remained chaste.

“We would apply that standard to heterosexuals as well,” testified Scott Powell, director of scriptural theology at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Center. “It’s the sexual act outside of marriage that we discourage.”

It didn’t impress opponents of the bill, including Democratic Rep. Rhonda Fields of Denver.

“If you’re gay, you could lead, because it’s only about being involved in some sexual activity,” Fields said. “So I’m wondering: If you had a gay leader who is married, would that person be allowed to lead? Based on that concern, I agree with testimony that organizations should provide an opportunity for anyone to be a leader, and I will vote against the bill.”

Homosexual students testified against the bill with arguments that said religious organizations discriminate by rejecting them as leaders and forcing them to embrace faith statements they find offensive.

“We’re concerned it would grant license to student groups to discriminate against anyone on a basis of sincerely held beliefs,” said a representative of CU-Boulder’s Chancellor’s Standing Committee on Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Issues.

“Would you find it agreeable if a straight Baptist minister became the head of a campus GLBT group?” asked Rep. Priola.

“Absolutely, so long as his values didn’t conflict,” the student said.


Double Standard?

Supporters of the bill said the exchange revealed a double standard on the part of opponents.

“That answer to the bill sponsor’s question showed hypocrisy,” said Boulder native Scott Weiser, who testified in favor of Priola’s bill and spoke afterward to the Register. “The leader of a gay group opposes the bill. Then he lets slip the fact he would, in fact, object to someone leading his group if that person didn’t share his values. I think the irony was lost on the majority. Either they didn’t catch it or they are more concerned with the politics of gay rights than their duty to defend basic principles of religious liberty and freedom of association.”

Wayne Laugesen writes from Colorado.

Correction: In the orginal version of this article published Jan. 30, it was stated incorrectly that Josh Santo spoke on behalf of the Fellowship of Catholic University Students’ team at UC-Boulder. His wife, Beth Santo, actually spoke on behalf of the group. The original article also incorrectly stated that Rep. Cherylin Peniston chaired the Jan. 27 committee hearing at the Colorado Legislature, and attributed comments erroneously to her. Rep. Millie Hamner chaired the meeting and made those comments. The article was amended Feb. 5 to correct these mistakes.