BISMARCK — California has barred most state-funded trips to North Dakota, calling foul on a bill passed earlier this year by lawmakers that allows student organizations at public colleges and universities to deny membership to those who don't align with their beliefs.

The final line of House Bill 1503, which passed in April with broad Republican support, states that a public institution of higher education may not withhold benefits otherwise offered to student organizations, like funds or building access, to groups that require members to "adhere to the organization's viewpoints."

Democratic California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced Monday, June 28, that California state employees will be mostly prohibited from traveling on the public dime to North Dakota, along with Arkansas, Florida, Montana and West Virginia over "anti-LGBTQ+ legislation" contributing to a "dangerous wave of discriminatory new bills signed into law."

The five states will join a dozen others including South Dakota on California's travel restrictions list, though the ban on trips to North Dakota won't take effect until Aug. 1 when the new law goes on the books.

Bonta said in a news release House Bill 1503 permits "certain publicly funded student organizations to openly discriminate against LGBTQ+ students by restricting participation in those organizations" — echoing a claim first made in April by the Human Rights Campaign, a prominent national LGBT advocacy group.

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The move by California confounded West Fargo Rep. Kim Koppelman and Bismarck Rep. Rick Becker. The bill sponsored by the two Republicans does not mention LGBT students, and no local LGBT rights advocates spoke against the legislation while it was in the pipeline.

Promoters such as Koppelman and Becker billed the legislation as an enhancement to free speech on campus that prevents university officials from stifling students' political expression. In addition to permitting organizations to reject students with conflicting ideologies, the bill requires institutions to allow speakers on campus regardless of their beliefs and bars activity fee funding discrimination based on a student organization’s mission.

North Dakota Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairs a committee during the 2019 legislative session. John Hageman / Forum News Service
North Dakota Rep. Kim Koppelman, R-West Fargo, chairs a committee during the 2019 legislative session. John Hageman / Forum News Service

Koppelman said it was "a bizarre interpretation" to argue the bill targets LGBT students, while Becker noted California officials are "certainly trying hard to find a problem with it."

Becker said he backed the bill because there's a nationwide pattern of university officials discriminating against Christian and conservative-leaning student organizations and guest speakers, though he noted the soon-to-be law does not outline protections for students or groups of any particular creed.

Becker, the founder of the ultra-conservative Bastiat Caucus, said organizations should be able to restrict their membership to students with similar beliefs and interests. For example, a Black student group shouldn't be forced to admit an avowed white supremacist or risk losing university funding, Becker said.

House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, said he understands the conclusion California has drawn and views the bill as an example of the Legislature failing to vet a proposal.

Boschee, the only openly gay North Dakota legislator, said it's problematic that students can be denied entry or removed from leadership in a faith-based group because they are questioning their sexual orientation, but he noted it's unlikely students would choose to involve themselves in unwelcoming organizations.

North Dakota House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, speaks at a bill signing on Friday, April 23, 2021. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)
North Dakota House Minority Leader Josh Boschee, D-Fargo, speaks at a bill signing on Friday, April 23, 2021. (Jeremy Turley / Forum News Service)

The Democrat added that he wished California would support LGBT businesses and show solidarity with marginalized communities in conservative places like North Dakota rather than boycotting entire states.

Lisa Johnson, vice chancellor for academic and student affairs for the North Dakota University System, said she wanted to consult with legal counsel before commenting on the development. Johnson testified against the bill on behalf of the system, saying it was unnecessary and duplicative with existing policy.

A spokesman for Republican Gov. Doug Burgum, who signed the bill into law, declined to comment on California's travel ban.

The financial impact of California's travel ban is unknown for North Dakota, though conferences and meetings hosted in the state could potentially be affected by the absence of California public employees. It's also unclear whether athletic competitions between public universities fall under the ban, but a spokesperson for Bonta's office said each California agency determines how it will comply with the travel restrictions.

HB1503 by Jeremy Turley on Scribd