In a rather heated session Wednesday night, the student senate at Texas A&M University passed a “Religious Funding Exemption Bill” that was originally aimed at allowing students to opt out of funding the school’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Resource Center for religious reasons. The controversy over the center is the latest clash over sexuality at a university that has seen decades of conflict over gay rights.
Though the bill did not specifically name the school’s Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Resource Center, which uses the atypical, guys-first acronym GLBT, Scott Bowen, the speaker of the student senate, said it evolved from another bill that “specifically referenced the GLBT Resource Center.” According to Bowen, who did not vote on the bill because of his role as speaker, the original bill was “overhauled” because the “vast majority” of the student senators did not agree with it.
One of the co-authors of the amended bill, Cary Cheshire, who said he did not support the original legislation that specifically targeted the GLBT Resource Center explained it was initially proposed because, “there was a student that had a religious objection and got a senator to author a bill to let them opt out of the GLBT Center.” In the ensuing debate, Cheshire said the student senators realized Texas A&M, which is a public university, already had a procedure by which students could opt out of funding individual projects for religious reasons.
“When the bill went to committee, it was rewritten to an across the board religious freedom bill,” Cheshire said. “We were trying to say, ‘Hey, let students know that, if they do have a religious objection, here is how they can opt out.'”
In the bill, it is described as merely an extension of the school’s existing policies:
“The Texas A&M Student Senate shall support the current standing process allowing students who object, for religious and moral purposes, to the use of their student fees and tuition to fund various services to opt out of paying an amount
equal to their share of the service funding from their fee and tuition money.”
The bill passed by a margin of 35-28. Cheshire said over 200 students came to watch the vote take place with people protesting in favor of the bill and against it. Despite the various technicalities involved in the amended bill, according to local newspaper, The Eagle, the majority of students from outside the government who spoke at the session opposed the bill and described it as discriminatory. Students reportedly “cursed” and “stormed out” at points during the proceedings.
Now that the bill passed it moves to student body president John Claybrook, who has the option to veto. As of this writing, Claybrook has not responded to request for comment and Cheshire said he’s not sure what Claybrook will do about the bill.
“I talked to the president after the bill passed and he said he’d have to really look at it long and hard,” said Cheshire.
The two senators who talked with TPM said the student government legislation serves as a recommendation to the school’s administrators who set policy. As of this writing, the university has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
Whatever happens with this bill, the Texas A&M GLBT Center faces another threat to it’s funding. Currently, the Texas state Legislature is considering a bill that would defund all LGBT centers at the state’s public schools.
This is far from the first controversial gay rights issue at the school. In 2011, the student senate passed a measure calling for funds that now go to the center to be divided evenly between the GLBT Center and a “Traditional Family Values Center” for students opposed to homosexuality. In 1984, a landmark federal circuit court decision forced the university to recognize gay student organizations. Originally, school administrators said they did not want to give recognition to gay groups because homosexuality was illegal in Texas.