By State Representative Hannah Kelly, 141st District
Even if you’ve never sworn to uphold it, you’re probably familiar with the oath of office we each take in the General Assembly.
It begins “I do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will support the Constitution of the United States and of the state of Missouri, and faithfully perform the duties of my office …”
In January, I raised my right hand, repeated those words, and felt their significance immediately. In part, oaths are important because they bind leaders to basic standards of conduct and a group’s shared core beliefs. They also help shape and preserve the character of the communities which we serve and the residents across our great state.
Unfortunately, in Missouri—and throughout our country—college students are at risk of being denied one of their basic Constitutional rights, freedom of religion. Students should be able to establish and maintain the unique identity of the groups they form. All across the country, public colleges and universities are considering or adopting “all-comer” policies. These policies prevent faith-based, student-run organizations from requiring that those who lead them hold—and will uphold—the core convictions that define them.
There are a lot of problems with these policies, but let’s start with this one: the descriptor “all comer” is misleading. In our state, the debate isn’t about who can come to an event or participate in an activity sponsored by a faith-based group; it’s about the criteria that group can use when determining who will lead it.
Some educational institutions default to a comprehensive politically correct position out of fear. By not allowing these groups the ability to require that their leaders share the core tenants of their faith-based organization. Their inclusiveness initiatives don’t seek to insure that people with views that differ but rather to override their ability to select leaders who are required to share those beliefs.
Students understand that preserving this freedom is common sense. That’s why the Muslim Student Association at Cal State Long Beach spoke out in support of Christian student groups that had been targeted by California’s “all-comer” policy. It’s the advocates of such policies who don’t seem to get it, a situation made worse by the unequal, unfair application of these policies.
In theory, “all-comer” policies should apply to everybody. In practice, enforcement is aimed squarely at campus faith-based groups that are aligned with a Christian denomination. And when it comes to enforcement, college administrators have a lot of firepower.
A student organization found in violation of an “all-comer” policy can lose access to campus meeting spaces, publications, mail and e-mail services, website hosting, booths at club fairs, tech equipment, and the use of their school’s name and logo, among other resources. In effect, groups can be forced off campus, scrambling to find money for the simplest necessities, like meeting tables and printer paper.
What I’m describing is not a hypothetical situation. The list of real-life examples where faith-based, student groups have been targeted is growing. At Southeast Missouri State, the student government passed a bylaw limiting the ability of campus groups to incorporate faith statements in leadership position criteria. The groups impacted worked diligently with their peers and administrators to achieve a resolution, but all Missouri student-run, faith-based groups remain vulnerable to this type of action.
Few rights are more important than those collectively known as our first freedoms: the right to speak publicly, assemble peacefully, and practice one’s faith freely.
House Bill 642 not only protects student rights; it also contributes to the future we are trying to build in Missouri. Students who participate in faith-based groups are given valuable opportunities to serve others, particularly the less fortunate and most vulnerable. They learn how to make a difference in their communities, how to pursue social justice, and how to tackle societal challenges like homelessness and poverty. The presence of faith-based groups on campus fosters collaboration between individuals of different backgrounds and invites engagement—even with those who oppose the group’s point of view. What’s more, these groups provide a sense of stability and enable students to forge new friendships during one of the most turbulent and formative stages of life.
But let me be clear, inviting discussion from persons with differing viewpoints should not mean that these groups should be, in essence, prohibited from requiring that their elected leaders share those basic beliefs. Persons may peaceably assemble, speak freely in opposition, protest the viewpoints of the group. What HB 642 will not permit is the hijacking of the group’s basic belief system.
Colleges and universities are not just the places where our students go to train for a profession. Optimally, these institutions nurture the whole person. They serve as a proving ground for the men and women that our sons and daughters will become. That’s why I see HB 642 as the ultimate “all-comer” policy. It ensures all students—including those who seek opportunities to live their faith—can be part of a dynamic and truly diverse academic community.
Benjamin Peters is a reporter for the Missouri Times and Missouri Times Magazine, and also produces the #MoLeg Podcast. He joined the Missouri Times in 2016 after working as a sports editor and TV news producer in mid-Missouri. Benjamin is a graduate of Missouri State University in Springfield. To contact Benjamin, email firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @BenjaminDPeters.