by Derek Pritchett and Jeffrey May
Periodically the Pew Research Center’s Religion and Public Life Project releases a demographic study on religious affiliation in America. In a recent report, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections,” an interesting trend was revealed. The number of religiously non-affiliated citizens in North America who are atheists, agnostics and religious people who don’t associate themselves with an organized church, is expected to grow by 89 percent in the coming decades. In fact, right now the “unaffiliated” make up about 16 percent of America’s religious landscape and 30 percent of millennials consider themselves unaffiliated. If you find yourself wondering why this seems to be the trend amongst our generation, look no further than Missouri House Bill 104, or The Student Freedom of Association Act.
On its face, the bill seems to be useful. Who doesn’t like freedom? Of course, upon closer examination, the legislation begins to resemble similar religious freedom bills passed nationwide. HB 104 would allow religious organizations to bar membership based on the beliefs of that organization that run counter to the beliefs or lifestyles of individual members. There are a few problems with this bill (as well as the ideas behind it) that need to be explored.
First, the legal implications behind the bill fly in the face of legal precedent set on the topic. If the law does somehow manage to pass and overcome an (almost assured) veto by the governor, its next stop would be the Missouri Supreme Court. That body would have grounds to strike the act down; Article I, Section 5 of the Missouri Constitution states that “neither the state nor any of its political subdivisions shall establish any official religion, nor shall a citizen’s right to pray or express his or her religious beliefs be infringed.” HB 104 allows campus organizations to discriminate on the expression of religious beliefs.
If, for example, a member of the LGBTQ+ community wanted to join a religious group whose beliefs they shared on a campus in Missouri, they could be turned away as long as that group didn’t agree with some facet of the person’s lifestyle. In a private religious setting, although definitely wrongheaded, this would be legally acceptable. However, religious organizations on campus are run partially thanks to state funds. An act of discrimination by one of these groups is tantamount to state-sponsored discrimination. There just isn’t a clear legal justification for such a bill, and its wide-ranging authority would certainly not meet muster as “strict scrutiny” (the standards mandated by the Supreme Court on matters of religious discrimination).
Legal questions aside, HB 104 is even more insidious on moral grounds. Nominally, the intent of the legislation is to empower campus religious groups. Practically, it could very well serve a self-fulfilling prophecy. Any religious group would suddenly have the authority to banish any current or potential members who do not line up neatly with arbitrary guidelines. This exclusion of non-cookie-cutter members would do little to help any religious community in the long-term; the reason so many youth are turning away from organized religion today is because they fear that these groups aren’t being inclusive. Many in our generation are wary of joining a faith due to perceptions of bigotry, ignorance or elitism, all characteristics that would become institutionalized via HB 104. Religious groups on college campuses should serve as a support network that doesn’t judge, (Isn’t that the job for the god being worshipped?) but instead seeks to serve anyone who wishes to partake. The true power that religion has doesn’t come from insular pettiness, but instead openness and inclusion of all peoples, even if that sometimes makes some members uncomfortable. It is from this diversity that a group can gain strength.
Years ago, the Student Secular Alliance, one of the religiously unaffiliated groups on campus, would go to Baptist Student Union meetings on occasion. There was never hostility, just honest and open conversation about what it meant to be religious and a young person in the world. Even though the two groups had wildly different worldviews, almost everyone walked away intellectually stronger and with a few more friends. Our fear is that HB 104 would make interactions like this impossible. We’re afraid that exclusion will become the new norm and people will lose the support structures they need. This bill could be easily abused, and people already being unfairly targeted will suffer even more oppression from groups who should be promising love and peace. Our fear is that religious groups, the Missouri State legislature and college students all across the state will once again find themselves on the wrong side of history. Tolerance, not pettiness, should guide our public and campus policies.