Freedoms of Speech, Religion on Idaho Campuses Debated Before Senate Committee

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A full hour of debate preceded the majority of the Senate State Affairs Committee's passage of a bill that calls for a significant change to how religious groups are recognized on the campuses of Idaho's public universities.

Senate Bill 1078 would allow faith-based organizations to require their leaders to adhere to specific "religious beliefs or standards of conduct."

"The way things operate now, any religious group may have its ideology and form a group and and welcome anyone without any strict adherence," said Ketchum Democratic Sen. Michelle Stennett. "Aren't we getting more restrictive?"

Kent Nelson, general counsel from the University of Idaho, told lawmakers that the university stood in opposition to the measure.

"Institutions don't discriminate in any organizations, religious groups or others," said Nelson. "We have concerns over this bill."

But Idaho Falls Republican Sen. Bart Davis disagreed.

"Kent Nelson's opinion has meant a great deal in the past. Kent Nelson's opinion will mean a great deal in the future. It does not today," said Davis. "We have been provided written evidence that there is a problem. Oral testimony indicates that there is a problem. It's a problem that exists and this is a solution intended to protect our first freedom, the freedom of religion."

A string of former and current Boise State students—members of the faith-based organization Campus Crusade and Intervarsity—stood before the committee to say their groups were victims of exclusion.

"It became apparent we would not be recognized before our group's officers were required to believe," said Boise State student Justin Ranger. "We lost all rights and benefits, including our ability to reserve meeting rooms, discounts for catered events and ability to post notices."

But Monica Hopkins, executive director of ACLU of Idaho, argued that the bill "sought state sponsorship for religious-based organizations."

"This bill goes way beyond what is constitutionally allowed," said Hopkins. "And this could go even further and result in possible discrimination of black, Hispanic or older students or students with disabilities."

Stennett told her fellow lawmakers that she couldn't support the bill.

"The difficulty I'm having is that this treats religious groups as more worthy than non-religious groups," said Stennett.

Boise Democratic Sen. Elliot Werk, also voting "no," called the bill a "solution in search of a problem."

"With all due respect to Sen. Werk, this is not a solution in search of a problem," said Davis. "Our attorney general agrees with this analysis.

Ultimately, SB 1078 moved forward, along party lines, to the full Senate with a "do pass" recommendation.

No one representing Boise State testified on the bill before the committee.

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