The Texas A&M student senate late Wednesday passed a bill aimed at letting students opt out of funding the university's Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgendered Resource Center on religious grounds.
After three hours of tear-filled testimony and impassioned debate, the senate voted 35-28 to approve the measure to allow students to choose not to pay portions of their student fees to specific university services that conflict with their religious beliefs.
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." Its scope was broadened, and it did not specifically mention GLBT services.
Students, nearly exclusively in opposition to the bill, crammed the sides of the senate chamber and spilled out into the hallway. Overflow viewing areas were set up, and the meeting was postponed several times while administrators cleared paths to the exit.
Many opponents of the measure held signs, such as one reading "We are the Aggies. The Aggies are we."
The debate polarized the traditionally conservative university, which in the 2012 installment of Princeton Review's "LGBT-unfriendly" list topped other Texas schools and was ranked as the seventh least-friendly public university nationwide.
The dialogue was kicked off with a strong message from bill co-author Thomas McNutt.
"I'm just here asking everybody to just chill out and calm down," McNutt told the crowd.
The proponents of the bill argued that A&M students were already allowed to opt out of paying fees based on their religious beliefs. However, it's unclear if that is the case.
Top university officials said Wednesday night that they initially believed what the students were representing was not accurate, and students are currently disallowed from the opting out. Officials stressed that students cannot opt out of the University Advancement Fee, but said the claim of partial exemption could not be verified late Wednesday night.
Students spoke both for and against the bill, with the majority opposing it. Opponents argued that the bill was discriminatory, alienating and embarrassing for A&M. Proponents said the bill would ensure religious freedoms for all students.
Student Andrew Lupo, who identified as openly gay, spoke against the bill.
"The Religious Funding Exemption bill is a facade to deprive GLBT students of resources to create a safe environment," Lupo said to the senators. "I see so many of you, you're young -- 18 and 19 years old-- and there is a great future for you. Is this how you want to begin your career -- by attacking your own Aggies, your own community?"
Student Aaron Ackerman disagreed and compared forcing students to pay for the GLBT center to forcing doctors to perform partial-birth abortions.
"Our decision here is not going to reach that far," Ackerman said. "I just want to show how dangerous a philosophy is that some organization, government or otherwise, can make a person do what is against their most deeply held beliefs."
McNutt, during the presentation of the bill, read from the First Amendment and the Texas Constitution.
"We came up with the new bill -- the new bill that does not point out anyone," McNutt said of the reworked proposal. "If you think this is pointing someone out, it is a fabrication in your head that you have created on your own."
Some senators tried to delay the vote, saying that the reworked bill had not been thoroughly vetted, but the attempt fell short.
Emotions were close to the surface.
Some senators cursed, and some students stormed out. The woman tallying the senators' decision started crying as the votes were cast.
The bill now moves to the desk of student body president John Claybrook, who told The Eagle that a "veto is always on the table" but that he was still mulling the decision.
"I don't wish students to be disenfranchised with this or anything that this body does because these are students who have a home here and who are cared about by thousands and thousands and thousands of students. The actions by a few should not make them feel like this is not their home," he said.
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, according to a university spokesman.