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Eyes on Senate

Narrow vote passes religious funding bill as students crowd meeting

Published: Thursday, April 4, 2013

Updated: Thursday, April 4, 2013 03:04

SGA

Tanner Garza

Students pack tightly into a room in the John J. Koldus building to listen and speak on behalf of the recently revised Religious Funding Exemption Bill Wednesday evening at a SGA meeting.

senate meeting

Tanner Garza

Authors of the revised Religious Funding Exemption Bill defend the bill after open forum at the weekly SGA meeting Wednesday.

Student Senate passed The Religious Funding Exemption Bill — formerly The GLBT Funding Opt-Out Bill — Wednesday by a majority vote of 33-30.

If Student Body President John Claybrook signs the bill, it would call for the University to change its system for students who religiously and morally object to “various services” to receive a refund of student fees that would otherwise be allocated to such services.

Liberal Arts senator Thomas McNutt, senior political science major and one of six bill authors, said the goal of the bill is to use existing systems to ensure the religious freedom of every student.

“Texas A&M already allows [students to opt-out for religious reasons],” McNutt said. “And look, we are doing just fine. Nobody knew that they already allow it, so what we are asking for in this bill is for there to be a clear, advertised process.”

The meeting attracted more viewers than could be held in the Senate meeting room in accordance with fire code. Rev’s American Grill in the MSC and two overflow rooms streamed live video of the meeting. With students lining the outside of the meeting room over an hour in advance, many students expressed dissatisfaction at being denied admittance due to occupancy issues.

Hunter Hampton, freshman international studies major, said students should have another opportunity to voice their opinions to Student Senate.

“This open forum should be held again where students can actually participate and not be locked out by closed doors,” Hampton said. “It’s a shame that the organization of this has been so poor that the students to whom this would actually make a difference are not being allowed to take meaningful part in what’s going on here.”

The gallery in the meeting had to be silenced more than once by a gavel. Hissing followed the announcement of the bill’s passing.

An open forum prior to deliberation lasted for more than an hour, during which 27 students addressed Senate.

Levi Bohanan, sophomore political science major, spoke in open forum on behalf of GLBT Aggies and said while they were grateful for the responsive and respectful attitude of Senate in communicating with GLBT Aggies, the ethical action would be to postpone voting on the bill because changes were made less than 24 hours beforehand. Amendments were passed that changed the title and substance of the bill at Tuesday’s Senate Finance Committee meeting.

“We would request that the Student Senate move the date of the vote to April 17 so that the proper discourse and research can be done concerning the substance of the bill,” Bohanan said.

When addressed in senatorial discussion of the bill, a majority of senators voted not to postpone voting on the bill.

McNutt said delaying the vote could be seen as an attempt to delay democracy and the same arguments would be repeated at the next meeting.

Christopher Russo, aerospace engineering graduate student, said enough research has already been gathered.

“This is a waste of time,” Russo said. “This is a delay tactic.”

In defense of the bill, Russo said he wanted to clarify that Senate is not the body responsible for deciding which claims of religious and moral objections are legitimate under this bill, and that the bill speaks to a legal precedent of equality in religious freedom.

“This exemption does not apply differently to different people,” Russo said. “By highlighting this process, we are not getting at an opportunity to count someone as less. That is a cultural issue that needs to be resolved by pouring out our hearts.”

Many senators and open forum speakers cited Aggie values in support or opposition of the bill.

Senator Jose Luis Zelaya, curriculum and instruction graduate student, received applause when he said that highlighting the student refund request system provides a platform to discriminate. Zelaya said the bill does not inspire unity and students should run for senatorial positions to change events like this from happening again.

“There is a hidden word in this bill that’s called the GLBT Resource Center,” Zelaya said. “I ask if this will unite us. I don’t think so … Please, take my seat, take [the other senator’s seats], so that we can make this University a better place.”

When asked how making the system easier to navigate for students promoted unity, McNutt said there can be no union if one’s rights are not respected. Cary Cheshire, another bill author, said the bill also was a matter of upholding the value of respect.

“Respect is about respecting religious liberties as well,” Cheshire said.

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