S.C. Religious-Liberty Bill Seeks to Counter U.S. Supreme Court Ruling

March 15, 2013

Investigative Reports

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Church and State StreetsA 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that critics contend restricts religious liberty at public colleges and universities has spurred a state bill aimed at preventing the ruling’s application in South Carolina.

“In my view, this decision is one of the most troubling Supreme Court decisions I have ever read,” said S.C. Sen. Chip Campsen, R-Charleston and sponsor of the bill (S. 472), dubbed the “Student Association Freedom of Religion Act.”

Thursday, a Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Campsen approved the legislation, which would prevent public colleges and universities in South Carolina from denying religious-based and “student-expressive” organizations the same campus benefits other student associations enjoy based on the affected groups’ “beliefs or standards of conduct.”

Campsen sponsored an amendment to his bill to add protection to “student-expressive” organizations, such as groups based on political ideologies. The legislation, which was introduced on Feb. 28, now moves to the full Senate Judiciary Committee.

Practically, the bill would give the affected organizations the same recognition other student groups receive, which would allow access to such things as student activity fees, university buses and on-campus facilities.

In the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, a sharply divided U.S. Supreme Court sided with the University of California’s policy requiring all student associations to admit members without regard to their beliefs. The UC Hastings College of the Law’s Christian Legal Society chapter, which required that students who joined the group sign a statement of faith and adhere to its principals, filed a lawsuit, arguing that the university violated its members’ First Amendment rights.

“It’s political correctness run amok,” Campsen told The Nerve in an interview before Thursday’s meeting. “When political correctness runs up against freedom of religion, we’ve hit a new low point in this country. This is not going to happen in South Carolina.”

Campsen said he believes the Christian Legal Society was unfairly singled out in the California ruling, which was decided by a 5-4 vote.

“For example, there were, in fact, student Republican caucuses, student Democratic clubs, who required their members to adhere to the parties’ platforms,” he said. “That was a condition of membership. But yet, they were not denied a recognized student organization.”

Generally, U.S. Supreme Court rulings trump state laws. Campsen, an attorney, said during Thursday’s hearing that while the nation’s top court upheld the University of California’s policy, it did not compel other universities to adopt the same or a similar policy, adding that state legislation is needed to prevent it from happening in South Carolina.

For now, though, the Palmetto State seems to be in no danger of facing such a situation, according to several universities contacted by The Nerve.

“I can’t think of any case where that (Christian Legal Society situation) has happened,” said Heather Woolwine, spokeswoman for the Medical University of South Carolina. “We have a pretty staunch non-discriminatory policy here.”

“We have such a diverse make up here,” Woolwine added, “from the gay-straight alliance to the gospel choir.”

Clemson University lists 38 religious or faith-based organizations, while the University of South Carolina’s Columbia campus has 32, according to university records.

“I can say that all university policies and the institution’s diversity statement assert that we strive to maintain an inclusive and equitable environment for all regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ability or religious affiliation,” Clemson spokeswoman Cathy Sams said in an email to The Nerve.

Campsen said the protections in his bill would not apply to associations that require their leaders to “intentionally incite or produce imminent illegal action.”

“Christian, Jewish, atheist – it’s about accommodating religious diversity in our higher-education institutions,” he said.

Sen. Shane Massey, R-Edgefield and a co-sponsor of the bill, agreed with Campsen.

“I thought it was a good bill,” Massey, an attorney, told The Nerve. “Too often, colleges preach tolerance, then fail to heed their own advice.”

Oran Smith, director and CEO of the Palmetto Family Council, a Columbia-based nonprofit educational organization whose mission, according to its website, is to “strengthen and defend South Carolina families,” said during Thursday’s hearing that the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision “made no common sense.”

With an “all-comers” policy such as the one at the University of California, Smith cited an example in which the most influential Republican on a campus could be elected president of that college’s Democratic organization, giving that person the authority to speak for the group and open forums with the media.

Subcommittee member Sen. Thomas McElveen, D-Sumter and an attorney, expressed concerns during the hearing that the bill could increase student “sects and factions” to organize on college campuses, resulting in higher student fees.

Ultimately, though, the subcommittee moved to pass the amended bill to the full committee.

Reach Weston at (803) 254-4411 or kelli@thenerve.org.