HAMLET — Student groups at Richmond Community College and public colleges throughout the state now have more autonomy to select their leadership.
A bill signed by Gov. Pat McCrory June 25 gives student organizations—particularly those that are faith-based— the ability to “determine that only persons professing the faith or mission or the group…are qualified to serve as leaders of that organization.”
Groups are also authorized to take care of their own internal affairs and settle their own disputes, according to the law.
The law prohibits public colleges and universities from denying any groups access to funding, facilities or other privileges granted to other recognized clubs on the basis of the selective exclusion.
Sen. Gene McLaurin, D-Richmond, and Rep. Ken Goodman, D-Richmond, both voted for the bill as it passed through their respective houses.
However, Rep. Garland Pierce, D-Scotland, voted against the bill as it passed the state House 78-37.
“Many of us disagreed,” he said. “(The bill) took the power away from the schools to regulate these groups.”
Pierce said many colleges were opposed to the bill.
“This law is giving students the right to do anything they want without any accountability,” he said.
Pierce also added that “no individual rights were protected,” only the rights of the group.
“The groups would be discriminating against their own members,” he said adding that he believes the law may be unconstitutional.
Colleges and legislators weren’t the only ones to find fault with the new law.
On the day the bill passed the House, the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina released a statement opposing it.
Sarah Preston, state ACLU policy director, said the law forces “taxpayers to fund school groups even when they discriminate by rejecting students based on their race, sex, religion or sexual orientation.”
“The right of student groups to organize and meet without school resources is not in question,” she said. “The only question is whether colleges and universities should be forced to fund and lend other resources to groups that discriminate not only in how they select student leaders, but potentially in how they select or determine membership.”
But another civil rights group disagrees.
“FIRE supports laws that protect freedom of association for student groups,” said Robert Shibley, vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. “We are pleased to see that North Carolina has joined Ohio, Idaho and Virginia in ensuring that belief-based student groups have the right to make belief-based decisions on their leaders and how they will operate.”
FIRE is a nonprofit organization that promotes and protects the rights of students and professors on college campuses across the country.
In his 2012 book “Unlearning Liberty,” FIRE President Greg Lukianoff showed — in a chapter on freedom of association on campus — how a law like North Carolina’s could prevent a hostile takeover.
Lukianoff recounted a situation where students at Central Michigan University, unhappy with the group Young Americans for Freedom, actually planned to infiltrate the group’s meetings and vote each other into office, in order to take over and dissolve the club.
The assistant director of student life told YAF members that school policy dictated they could not discriminate against membership or leadership, even in a belief-based organization.
After FIRE became involved, the college’s president issued a statement to all campus clubs saying, “A belief-based registered student organization may use its belief system as a criterion for selection of membership and leadership.”
“Seems obvious, doesn’t it?” Lukinaoff asked. “A belief-based organization should, of course, be allowed to choose members on the basis of whether or not they share core beliefs of the group.”
But in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court favored non-discrimination over freedom of association.
In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the court ruled, as Lukinaoff wrote, “that any public university could pass a rule that required all student organizations to accept any students, regardless of whether or not they believed in the tenets of the organization.”
“In CLS v. Martinez, the Supreme Court ruled that a public institution could require all officially recognized student groups, even belief-based groups, to admit all students as members and leaders,” Shibley said. “It did not say that public schools had to require this, and indeed most do not.”
Shibley said that while Martinez OK-ed pure “all-comers” policies, virtually no school is bound to follow the ruling.
“For example, under the logic of Martinez, it is impossible to justify fraternities or sororities, which exclude students not based on ultimately changeable beliefs, but on the immutable characteristic of sex,” he said. “It also does not make an allowance for merit- or talent-based groups.”
“This was not a problem at the University of California Hastings College of the Law, which is a small, stand-alone law school without any such groups, but it would be a severe problem almost anywhere else,” he added.
Although campus organizations at Richmond Community College are not very active over the summer, the school does have a variety of clubs students can participate in, from the faith-based Campus Crusade for Christ to the occupational-related Criminal Justice Club.
Andy Cagle, director of marketing and communications, said RCC hasn’t been informed of any policy changes from higher up. He said that all policies have to be compliant with state law.
Cagle added that all clubs on campus are chartered through the Student Government Association.
“I don’t think this is an issue for us,” he said. “I don’t think we have those people who are going to crash the party.”
Reach reporter William R. Toler at 910-817-2675.