Last week, the Texas A&M student legislature heatedly butted heads over a $2 fee that undergraduates and graduates are required to contribute each semester to the Gay Lesbian Bisexual and Transgender (GLBT) Resource Center as part of the supplemental fees portion of their tuition. A&M’s turbulent week represents a decades-long struggle: how should a school that prides itself on tradition and conservatism deal with homosexuality?
The debate occurred over the student body’s Senate Bill 65-70, originally entitled The GLBT Funding Opt-Out Bill, which reads, “[I]t is reasonable for students to object to a use of their own money that they feel violates their religious conscience.” The bill suggests that students should have the option to express “a disagreement” to the administration and, if the University finds the disagreement “valid,” be refunded the student fee.
The bill, renamed The Religious Funding Exemption Bill, passed the Student Senate by a 35-28 margin earlier last week. After a national outcry, Student body president John Claybrook vetoed the bill. Late Friday, the Senate speaker and Claybrook released a joint statement announcing that a motion would be made at the next meeting on April 17 to postpone a veto override by the Senate. This will likely sustain Claybrook’s veto and stifle further discussion.
When the bill was initially proposed with its old name, bill author Chris Woolsey wrote that “many students disagree” with Texas A&M’s allocation of funding to the GLBT Resource Center, a campus facility that offers education and counseling services as well as organizes social events for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered Aggies.
The university has a long history of antagonism toward GLBT groups. In the spring of 1976, students hanging flyers for Gay Student Services (GSS) were cornered with knives and threatened, writes Daniel Pinello, author of Gay Rights and American Law. The GSS (whose goals were fairly similar to the GLBT’s goals today: counseling, education, speakers) decided to apply for official university recognition in 1976. Recognition would earn them some funding from student fees and space to meet on campus. Texas A&M, however, turned down GSS’s request for recognition for two reasons: first, Lawrence v. Texas was still years in the making, so homosexual conduct was actually a Class C misdemeanor, and second, the school contended that A&M staff members should be responsible for offering the kinds of services GSS intended to bring to College Station.
The small cluster of students spearheading GSS’s establishment sued Texas A&M in 1977 on the basis of the First Amendment. A federal District Court later that year granted the university’s motion to dismiss the case. GSS appealed that decision to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which voided the lower court’s judgment and remanded the case back to that court. A bench trial was held in 1981 and the district court again ruled in favor of the university, after hearing evidence at trial that “consisted almost solely of medical testimony from specialists in human sexuality regarding the effect the presence of a homosexual student group might have on a university campus.” On appeal, the Fifth Circuit again sided with GSS, finding that “TAMU’s refusal to recognize GSS as an on-campus student organization impermissibly denied appellants their First Amendment rights.” The university was forced to hire outside counsel after the state declined to represent them in their appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.*
On April 1, 1985, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, leaving the Fifth Circuit’s decision in favor of GSS in place, months after A&M’s Student Senate had voted GSS into official campus recognition by a majority of one vote.
It’s no secret that Texas A&M has been considered by some as anti-change. One campus group, the Texas Aggie Conservatives, has made news in the past for their crusade against “liberal activities” at A&M. Their website still hosts a petition to end “institutional funding bias,” citing the GLBT Resource Center. If the university insists on continuing to fund GLBT, then it should also fund a center that espouses “traditional family values,” they argue.
Claybrook told Texas Monthly that the bill’s wording describes a “current process” by which Aggies can opt out of paying fees on religious or moral grounds but explained that this has never been an executable option for students. But, he said, “I never want to sign a bill that makes certain groups of students feel disenfranchised.”
“There was a major outcry against this bill from students all across campus,” he said.
Thanks to the request of the Student Speaker Scott Bowen, the Senate will not override Claybrook’s veto. Still, Claybrook said, the University has not come out unscathed.
“The media portrayed Texas A&M as small-minded and behind the curve. The tide shifted on Friday after the bill was vetoed . . . fortunately, the issue has died down significantly since the end of last week.”
*An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the appeals process in Gay Student Services v. Texas A&M University. We regret the error.