The Idaho Senate voted today to approve a measure which would keep the doors open at public universities to religious groups that require their leaders to swear allegiance to their tenets of faith.
"We heard that one of our public universities was intending to exclude these groups," said Nampa Republican. Sen. Curt McKenzie, the sponsor of Senate Bill 1078. "This is a real issue. It's a live issue. One of our universities is changing its policy."
But McKenzie's bill would require universities to afford the same benefits - such as access to student fee funds and use of school meeting facilities - to groups such as Campus Crusade and InterVarsity as any other student club.
But Ketchum Democratic Sen. Michelle Stennett argued against SB 1078.
"I think most of us embrace the practice of open student clubs of all varieties on our camuses," said Stennett. "But these groups already elect leaders that adhere to their beliefs. It would be counterintuitive for them to select someone who is not like-minded. This doesn't make any sense. By naming religious groups and carving out a special benefit, we're granting a special status for religious groups over hundreds of other non-religious groups. I think that's a bit disturbing."
Boise Democratic Sen. Branden Durst, who said he was once a member of the faith-based clubs, said he would in favor of the bill.
"This is a problem," said Durst. "The reality is that these clubs have national relationships that require their leaders to sign oaths of belief."
But Boise Democratic Sen. Les Bock said the bill was inviting a lawsuit.
"This bill makes me really uncomfortable," said Bock. "We have to be careful when we go in this direction. This little incursion is dangerous and this meddlesome activity is some we should reject."
Caldwell Republican Sen. Jim Rice pushed back, saying, "The Founding Fathers would have been appalled that we even had to have this kid of discussion. This is a good bill, an appropriate bill. And it actually avoids litigation."
Ultimately the Senate voted 30-5 in favor of the bill, sending the measure to the Idaho House for its consideration.ORIGINAL STORY: March 6, 2013
Boise Democratic Sen. Elliot Werk called Senate Bill 1078 "a solution in search of a problem." The measure--which swings open the doors of Idaho public universities to religious groups that require leaders to swear allegiance to tenets of faith--passed through the Senate State Affairs Committee March 4, but not before a robust debate surrounding freedoms of speech and religion.
Nampa Republican Sen. Curt McKenzie, the committee's chair, sponsored the measure.
"This issue came to my attention when I was contacted by Kim Colby from the Christian Legal Society, saying that Boise State was poised to adopt a policy excluding any religious student group that required its leaders to adhere to its religious beliefs," he said.
But Werk pushed back, asking if the same measure would allow a jihadist religious group to be accepted.
"What if a religious group was calling for a holy war against non-believers or promoted genocide against other religious groups?" asked Werk.
McKenzie said that while SB 1078 would protect Muslims' access to campus, "When speech goes as far as harming others, that would go beyond First Amendment protections."
Monica Hopkins, a regular proponent of First Amendment rights in her role as executive director of ACLU of Idaho, argued that the bill could lead to other constitutional violations.
"This seeks an allowance for religious organizations to be exempt from rules that are set for other student organizations," she said.
But a string of former and current Boise State students stood before the committee, each of them a member of faith-based organizations that they said had been restricted by the university.
"It became apparent we would not be recognized by Boise State because our officers were required to believe," said Boise State student Justin Ranger.
Jesse Barnum, a 2009 Boise State graduate, said he ran into resistance from university officials when he tried to create a faith-based series of forums on campus.
"We believed Jesus was important," said Barnum. "And he was conspicuously lacking in discussions on campus."
Canyon County resident Bruce Skaug, who worked with Sen. McKenzie to craft the bill, said that if lawmakers weren't willing to move SB 1078 forward, he would take the matter to court.
"We're preparing a lawsuit if this bill doesn't go through," said Skaug, who practices as an attorney with Goicoechea Law Office in Nampa.
But Skaug walked away a happy man when Idaho Falls Republican Sen. Bart Davis led the committee's GOP majority to pass the measure.
"With all due respect to Sen. Werk, this is not a solution in search of a problem," said Davis. "This is a problem ... and this is a solution intended to protect the freedom of religion."
But Werk disagreed.
"Religious organizations add flavor and diversity to our campuses," he said. "But the idea that we have a bill that says religious organizations can require an article of faith for the leaders to sign seems a bit discriminatory."