Gov. Bob McDonnell, R-Va., recently signed the Student Group Protection Act into law. The legislation disallows Virginia colleges from withholding funds or otherwise discriminating against religious and political groups who base membership on religion, sexual orientation or personal beliefs.
The law creates a clear division. On one side, the legislation — taken to an extreme — allows groups that blatantly discriminate against sex, religion or race to receive school funding. Technically, a politically oriented white supremacist group could ask the school for funding just like any other student group or club.
On the other side, groups like The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education see the law as a pillar of pluralism and diversity. In this light, the law guarantees groups can maintain a steady image, free of pollution from “all comers must be accepted” rules.
Before you accuse McDonnell of antiquated policies and unconstitutional discrimination, take a look at the law itself.
The law’s second subdivision states, “No public institution of higher education that has granted recognition of and access to any student organization or group shall discriminate against any such student organization or group.”
Before any inherently racist, sexist or otherwise discriminative group can ask for school funding, it first must be “granted recognition of and access to” from the college or university. As such, the chances of hate groups or illegal clubs receiving funding relies solely on the school granting recognition. If you attend a school that recognizes white supremacist groups, for example, blame the school before you blame the law.
Why are we shocked that a law now permits religious and political groups to discriminate? Other clubs discriminate any time a prospective member requests access and is denied. Look at Greek life. While sororities and fraternities can’t tell a potential new member to beat it because of his or her race or religion, the organization doesn’t have to extend a bid.
Look at the schools themselves. Every year, colleges and universities receive thousands of applications. Sure, the College of William and Mary won’t write you back saying “Sorry, we met our quota for your characteristics already,” but nobody is guaranteed an acceptance letter.
Clubs and groups discriminate on some level, intentionally or not, all the time. Now religious and political groups can, too.
The issue reflects a nationwide trend. From Virginia’s institutions of higher education, to Congress, to the country as a whole, the law McDonnell signed parallels a movement to solidify every defining line possible in society.
We’re afraid of gray areas; we prefer black and white. Our sense of identity shrinks in the face of an ever-expanding world of alternative philosophies, cultures and lifestyles. Nowhere is this more prevalent than a college campus.
With shifting ideas of what “traditional” and “liberal” mean, we feel an urgent need to identify ourselves through association. In a few weeks, admitted students will flood the Sunken Garden during Admitted Students Day and look up at College kids proudly representing their groups.
These rising freshmen are already being pushed to declare their allegiance — their particular brand of identification. Clubs aren’t designed to include the gray area, they’re meant to put forth a very black-and-white idea or mission. You’re pressured to define yourself and solidify your beliefs.
McDonnell’s signing of the Student Group Protection Act inspired two sets of arguments: Either you’re for the bill or you’re against it. No other option.
This is the same mentality running through the admitted students, and the same mentality running through America. You’re over here or over there. Choose.
Before you condemn the Student Group Protection Act for defending groups who ruin society, or applaud McDonnell for ensuring plurality and diversity, consider the gray area.
Say you want to join a religious or political group, but you’re turned away under the Student Group Protection Act. What’s stopping you from creating a new group?
Don’t run from the gray area. Make it your black and white.
Email Chris Weber at firstname.lastname@example.org.