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Religious Freedom: We’re All Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others

protest speechI took my first foray into the legislative process this January, testifying at a committee hearing of the Colorado House in support of a bill that would have prohibited universities from denying benefits to any religious student group based on “the religious student group’s requirement that its leaders adhere to the group’s sincerely held religious beliefs or standards of conduct.” That’s it. The bill didn’t apply to visitors to the groups, or even regular members.

Kim Colby, who is the Director of the Center for Law and Religious Freedom, asked me to testify on behalf of the Christian Legal Society. We submitted a joint written statement: Comments on House Bill 14-1048 Concerning Religious Freedom for Student Groups at State Institutions of Higher Education. The hearing was on January 27. Because a number of people wanted to testify both in support and in opposition, each person was limited to three minutes. You can’t say much in three minutes, but I also had the chance to answer some questions, probably because I’m a civil rights attorney. The process was orderly, but the bill’s sponsor had very little latitude to present information in support of his bill.

The bill didn’t seem that controversial. Socially, religious students need the support of religious student groups on public university campuses. And it seems self-evident and reasonable that religious groups should be able to define what they believe in and what their leaders believe in. Constitutionally, the bill was sound.

But there was strong opposition to the bill, which argued that if a religious student group “discriminated” against anyone, even in leadership, it should not be allowed to be a registered student group. As the opposition spoke, it became apparent that the real engine pulling the train was the LGBTQIA lobby. It wanted no protection for any organization that would not give it full support and approval.

While I understand and sympathized with the lesbian student’s testimony about how it was painful for her to deal with religious organizations that would not accept her (having spent much of my own life as the perennial outsider because of my multicultural background), I believe in a balance of civil rights. We can carve out space in the public square for multiple points of view, without any group imposing its beliefs on the other. One young man was asked if he had a problem with a straight Baptist pastor leading the LGBTQIA group. Not at all, he said, as long as he supported their values. In other words, adhere to the group’s sincerely held beliefs or standards of conduct? 

And the vote? The bill went down 7-6 on a straight party-line vote. Disappointing, intolerant, and illiberal.

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