RALEIGH — Student groups at colleges and universities around the state would have more autonomy to determine their own leadership and mission under a measure passed by the North Carolina House on Wednesday.
The bill, already passed by the Senate, now heads to the governor's desk.
The proposal prohibits university administrators from denying recognition, use of school facilities or funding to political or religious groups they disagree with. Student groups would have authority to resolve their own disputes and may reject candidates for leadership positions who do not conform to the basic mission and principles of the organization.
The bill comes as Christian groups in other states have been penalized and stripped of their student organization status because their doctrines clash with university policy. The proposal says an organization can decide that only people professing its faith or mission and who act in that manner can be leaders.
Opponents say the bill gives groups a license to discriminate against people who don't share their views. Supporters say it is necessary to protect students' First Amendment rights in an age of what they say is excessive political correctness. Groups whose missions would jeopardize the safety of others would not have protections under the bill.
"Our society is engaged in an ongoing cultural battle," said Rep. Bert Jones, R-Rockingham, the bill's primary sponsor. "There is a war on God ... Unfortunately these efforts have been extended to our campuses."
The bill would open the doors for lawsuits against the universities, said Rep. Alma Adams, D-Guilford.
"We're treading in an area where we are looking at violation of separation of state and church," she said. "If you don't allow someone who is a member of the organization to serve in the capacity of leadership then that is discrimination."
Rep. Rick Glazier, D-Cumberland, tried to alter the bill to make a distinction between a member's religious beliefs and their status as a person.
"There is a big difference between your status and your belief," he said. "You can at least make sure we are not creating a policy that is in violation of equal opportunity on campus that causes more problems than it answers."
Glazier also questioned why state legislation was needed when the Board of Governors was considering a similar measure. But Jones maintained it was the state's prerogative to reaffirm the rights of students on campus.
"We need to make clear that just because a student decides to attend our public schools and universities ... that does not somehow mean that the student forfeits his rights to the university," said Jones. "This bill also recognizes that there is an important difference between education and indoctrination coercion."
Josh Ellis, a spokesman for Governor Pat McCrory, didn't immediately respond to an email seeking comment on whether McCrory would sign the bill into law.