Controversial Religious Fee 'Opt-Out' Bill Approved by TAMU Student Senate

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It was standing room only in the meeting room of the Texas A&M Student Senate Wednesday night as senators voted in favor of the "Religious Funding Exemption Bill," a bill recommending to university leadership that students have the ability to opt out of mandatory student fees which are contrary to a student's particular religious or moral views.

The vote total as announced at the meeting was 35-28 - an official count published by the Senate has yet to have been published.

The bill, which previously bore the name "The GLBT Funding Opt-Out Bill", has taken heat from critics who say the bill is a blatant attempt to de-fund Texas A&M's Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Resource Center.

The TAMU Senate-approved version, entitled the "Religious Funding Exemption Bill", has created a divide among students on the Texas A&M campus. Student leaders in favor of the bill tell News 3 that the measure was re-named Tuesday and stripped of all references of the GLBT center to protect student's religious rights without singling out the GLBT community. Others have countered that the re-branding was merely for show.

According to a university spokesman, the GLBT Resource Center receives about $100,000 a year in funding provided by student fees, averaging out to a contribution of around $2 per student.

GLBT Aggies President Kimberly Villa says the center provides a "safe space" for those students who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, and that a vote in any way to strategically divert funding would hurt a population which has experienced a history of discrimination on the Texas A&M Campus. The center provides reference materials, counseling support, and programming concerning GLBT health and awareness issues.

The "Religious Funding Exemption Bill" was originally written by a student who felt morally and religiously opposed to paying fees that go towards the Gay Lesbian Bisexual Transgender Resource Center on campus. Author Chris Woolsey told A&M's student newspaper, The Batttalion, that he brought the bill to the Student Senate because many students shared his concerns. Senators in favor of the bill argued Wednesday that when it comes to the use of students' money, those students should have a say in where it goes.

Other students disagree. Kimberly Villa spoke on behalf of the GLBTA this week online, saying that "it is offensive and unacceptable to mask this discriminatory bill against [the GLBT] community as an issue of religion. It is unfair to make our resource an 'option'."

Opinion on campus is mixed.

"I don't see why we should be forced to pay for something that we wouldn't take part in other wise," said Prima Starr, a student at Texas A&M. "I am morally opposed. I'm not saying you can't do what you want to do. But it my eyes, it's what I feel is wrong."

"I think it's really important that everyone pays their fair share for things they're comfortable with and things they're not comfortable with. It's just like taxes," said Texas A&M student Thomas Surratt, who opposed the measure.

Opponents like Surratt, say an 'opt out' bill is a slippery slope. "It's not just the LGBT stuff they can affect. They can pretty much stop paying any student fees because they can find a reason to disagree with it."

Texas A&M has a documented history of controversy over GLBT issues. In 1984, a landmark ruling from the Fifth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals mandated that university administrators recognize the "Gay Student Services" student group as an official student organization. When the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take on an appeal, the case set precedent for such organizations at colleges and universities across the country. As recently as 2011, a proposal to "require GLBT resource centers to provide matching funds to traditional sexual education" was approved by the Texas A&M Student Senate but vetoed by the sitting SBP. A concurrent, unsuccessful provision for "traditional values centers" was pushed in the Texas Legislature as a budget provision by State Rep. Wayne Christian (R).

The 83rd Texas Legislative Session is not exempt from the debate, either. An amendment to the General Appropriations Act has been proposed by Arlington Republican Bill Zedler which would prohibit universities in Texas from using any funds with regards to "Gender and Sexuality Centers" that would "support, promote, or encourage any behavior that would lead to high-risk behavior for AIDS, HIV, Hepatitis B, or any sexually transmitted disease."

The Princeton Review in 2012 listed Texas A&M as ranked 7th on a list of the "unfriendliest" towards GLBT individuals, based on annual student opinion surveys. Two other schools from Texas made the top 20 on that list, including Baylor University at number 10 and The University of Dallas at number 15.

As far as the impact of the "Religious Funding Exemption Bill," Texas A&M officials say "any action the Student Senate takes is non-binding and advisory in nature," and as such, there is no immediate consequence of the bill's approval. The pending legislation now heads to the desk of TAMU's student body president, John Claybrook, who has the option to veto the measure.

You can read the full copies of both versions of the bill as well as State Rep. Bill Zedler's amendment to the appropriations act by clicking on the links above. We've also attached a link to a recording of the TAMU Student Senate meeting.