4-H bill threatens civil rights

by Coralie Carlson

Some Minnesota lawmakers want state 4-H clubs to follow the trail of California Boy Scouts, who are now able to discriminate against homosexuals and bisexuals after a recent high court decision. And if the University, which helps run 4-H, doesn’t enforce the discriminatory policies, the state could withhold $38.5 million in school funding.
Today, a conference committee will review the Higher Education Supplemental bills. A House amendment requires the University to exempt 4-H, a youth club mostly organized through the University’s Extension Service, from sexual orientation anti-discrimination policies.
University officials and lawmakers say the amendment will probably be dropped in conference committee. Complying to the amendment would violate Minnesota’s civil rights laws, because as a public youth organization, 4-H employers could choose not to hire individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation.
Rep. Tony Kielkucki, R-Winstead, who sponsored the amendment, found out after it passed on the House floor that the University’s policy is backed by a statewide civil rights bill and cannot be overturned by his amendment.
Because state law precludes the amendment from being enforced even if it passes, Kielkucki said he will explore other legislative options. He was not specific about what those options may be.
Kielkucki said he offered the amendment after hearing from three concerned 4-H volunteers.
The volunteers could not be club leaders because they refused to sign non-discrimination forms with language addressing sexual orientation. Kielkucki said more volunteers approached him with similar concerns after he made the amendment.
Jeanne Markell, assistant director the Extension Service, admitted there was confusion over the content of the forms. Some people were concerned that signing their name to anti-discrimination forms meant they personally endorsed a lifestyle they do not support.
But Markell maintained that by signing the forms, volunteers only agreed not to discriminate against homosexuals and bisexuals, not that they approved alternative lifestyles.
“They don’t have to change their religion to join 4-H,” she said. “Our real intent is to prevent any form of discrimination.”
Officials from 4-H are reviewing their forms and working with training staff members to clear up the confusion.
The 4-H program adopted an anti-discrimination initiative in 1988 when the University Board of Regents approved an Equal Employment Opportunity policy — which includes sexual orientation.
In 1993, the state passed an anti-discrimination law that includes sexual orientation. An amendment last year provides some wiggle room for non-public children’s programs, but 4-H is considered public because it receives funding from the United States Department of Agriculture. In Minnesota, 4-H has 300,000 members and 28,000 volunteers.
Beth Zemsky, director of the Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Programs Office at the University, said the amendment generated a great deal of concern at the University and in the community. She has been fielding dozens of e-mails and phone calls about the issue.
Although the amendment has no power, Zemsky said even the idea of it “taints in spirit if not in letter” the civil rights bill.