Texas A&M opt-out bill faces obstacles

Logo for the Texas A&M University Aggies (McClatchy-Tribune)

Logo for the Texas A&M University Aggies (McClatchy-Tribune)
Logo for the Texas A&M University Aggies (McClatchy-Tribune)
By Allen Reed
The Eagle via Associated Press

Texas A&M students who want more religious freedoms, or who don’t support a Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Resource Center, have many hurdles to clear before they can pocket their dollars.

The Texas A&M student senate late Wednesday voted 35-28 to pass a bill aimed at letting students opt out of funding the center, or other university services, based on religious grounds. Instead, students could keep the money that would traditionally go to organizations to which they object.

For weeks, the student-led bill had been aimed at defunding the Texas A&M GLBT center, but, approximately 24 hours before the final vote, the “GLBT Funding Opt Out Bill” became “The Religious Funding Exemption Bill.”

The move has put the traditionally conservative campus in the national spotlight, but many people say the funding for the center is secure, despite the efforts of the student senators.

The most immediate obstacle for the bill is student body president John Claybrook, who has until Wednesday to veto or sign the bill. Following the meeting, Claybrook expressed sentiments of inclusiveness but said his mind was not made up. He did not return calls from The Eagle on Thursday.

If signed, the legislation would be forwarded to A&M President R. Bowen Loftin, A&M Chief Financial Officer B.J. Crain, System Chancellor John Sharp and the regents, but administrators within A&M’s student affairs and finance divisions would have final say over any changes to the center’s budget.

Both Loftin and Vice President for Student Affairs Joe Weber were out of the office on Thursday and could not be reached for comment.

Ken Upton, senior staff attorney for Lambda Legal’s Dallas office, said even if the bill were signed and adopted as university policy, it wouldn’t last long.

“The most likely result is that a court would step in and stop it before it even happened,” Upton said.

He said there was clear legal precedent on the issue as laid out in the Supreme Court’s ruling in Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System v. Southworth, where students sued their university because they opposed multicultural, environmental and GLBT groups.

“This issue is pretty well settled,” Upton said.

If somehow the measure did work its way through the courts, he said, top university officials could be held liable.

“…The people with decision making authority who allowed it to happen could be held liable full money damages,” Upton said. “But it would probably be struck down so quickly that money damages wouldn’t be an issue.”

The center, opened in 2007, is a resource and referral center dedicated to providing a safe and affirming location on campus for all students and puts on annual campuswide events such as Coming Out Week, GLBT Awareness Week, AIDS Awareness Week and others. University officials say approximately 1,200 Aggies utilize the center each semester.

The center receives $100,000 in university funding annually. All of the funding comes from the students’ university advancement fee, with the exception of $13,500 in university money for a graduate assistant position.

The university allocated $115.2 million in fees for fiscal year 2013, $16.9 of which go to student affairs. Student affairs has a multitude of services, including $453,000 for choral activities, $433,000 for Greek life, $3.9 million for student counseling and $332,000 for student government. The GLBT Resource Center is funded in a $1.4 million allotment to student life.

The bill’s authors argued before the senate Wednesday night that students could already opt out of paying fees based on religious reasons, a fact A&M officials were not prepared to answer late Wednesday night. The ambiguity was cleared up Thursday.

“I’ve been here for 40 years and I’ve never seen anything that would permit a student to opt out of paying a fee,” said Bob Piwonka, executive director of Student Business Services. “I’m not aware of anything like that that allows a student to opt out of paying a specific fee.”

The university has a process that allows students to opt out of paying the university in various ways, but payment of a specific fee is not open to appeal, Piwonka said. Furthermore, the exceptional circumstances laid out in the appeal process do not include religious exemptions, he said, adding that he had no idea where the student senators got the idea.

Regardless of the measure’s chances of actually becoming a school policy, Wednesday’s vote has polarized the A&M campus and lit up social media.

A petition on Change.org lobbying for Claybrook to veto the bill had more than 2,600 signatures on Thursday evening.

“Facebook is exploding,” said student senator Robbie Cimmino, who voted against the bill. “I think I’ve gotten eight emails already … Students are very upset that it passed. They are embarrassed and are tired of hearing stories like this. People are very, very upset right now.”

Senator Jose Luis Zelaya, who also voted against the bill, stressed that only about one half of one group of students voted for the bill. He said the majority of Aggies feel differently.

“Of course I’m ashamed; of course I’m saddened,” Zelaya said. “This does not represent Texas A&M.”

Zelaya confirmed campus had been buzzing about the topic all day but said the feedback he’d received was exclusively opposing the bill.

Bill co-author Chris Woolsey had a different experience.

“I thought it went well,” Woolsey said of the vote. “I was disappointed that the people who were in opposition to the bill were not using logical arguments. They were abstracting from the bill to push their political agenda.”

He urged people to read the bill before forming an opinion.

“I would encourage people to read the bill because a lot of people are just going after this for discrimination,” Woolsey said. “If they look at the bill, they’ll see what it is, and they’ll see what we’re advocating.”

Students and supporters from around the state had sent him texts, emails and messages of support for the bill, Woolsey said. He acknowledged the reaction was mixed but said the majority of people thanked him.

“There’s a lot of encouragement that I’ve gotten today, but I go on Facebook and everyone wants to put their two cents in,” Woolsey said. “The people who are the desk activists, they’re all up in arms wanting my head on a pike, but there’s no substance to their arguments at all.”