By CHRIS KARDISH
A bill blocking a University of North Carolina policy allowing students to choose roommates of the opposite sex has found new life in the state Senate budget.
The proposal was inserted in the $20.6 billion plan approved this week. It seeks to prevent a UNC-Chapel Hill policy giving students the option to choose opposite-sex roommates from taking effect this fall.
The proposal would allow opposite-sex assignments only if students are siblings, legally married or a parent and child. It was introduced in a bill that never received a committee vote. A deadline requiring any non-spending bill to pass one chamber to stay alive through the 2013-14 legislative session recently expired.
Proponents of the UNC policy, which passed the board of trustees last year, argue it will help prevent harassment of gay, lesbian and transgender students. Advocates say many gay and transgender students feel more comfortable with members of the opposite sex and the policy, for example, would allow a gay man to live with a woman best friend from high school.
Opposite-sex students would only share living spaces in apartments or suites, not individual rooms. Nearly 100 campuses nationwide have similar policies, according to UNC’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Center.
To take effect, the proposal would have to survive the House version of the budget, which is expected in three weeks. Any differences in spending plans would have to be hashed out in a conference committee.
It’s not unusual for unrelated policy items to find their way into the budget, though it has been the practice of previous legislatures to include the names of lawmakers who add those provisions. Only one of the three sponsors of the original bill returned phone calls or email messages seeking comment.
Sen. Ben Clark, D-Hoke, said he didn’t push to include his proposal in the budget and doesn’t know who did.
“I think the budget is for taking care of things like how we’re going to spend money,” he said.
He said his views on student housing “may be a little old-fashioned,” but the university should be able to combat bullying with heightened anti-harassment policies and enforcement.
“It’s incumbent upon them to make sure they’re free of harassment in any dorm, in any classroom, in any organization,” he said. “To me, it’s a problem if we think we have to give special accommodations. It’s unacceptable to me that they should not feel they’re free everywhere.”
Kevin Claybren, a UNC junior and member of the advocacy group that pushed for the rule, said the budget would overturn a policy supported by 55 university departments and committees as well as 3,000 students who signed a petition before the board of trustees vote.
He added that fears of heterosexual couples abusing the system aren’t supported by reviews at universities that have already adopted similar policies, and UNC’s housing department will actively screen for those cases. This year will include only 32 rooms, or less than 1 percent of all housing units, as a limited pilot program, Claybren said.
“We know that harassment is a reality on our campus, especially in housing, so why not make sure that our campus can be as safe as possible for all students?,” he said. “This program isn’t even set in stone.”
House budget writer Rep. Nelson Dollar, R-Wake, said he’s concerned with the number of unrelated items in the budget proposal, and his chamber will look over all of them before releasing its own spending plan.
“The House would prefer to have less policy that is not tied directly to appropriations, and so we’re obviously looking at that issue,” he said. “There’s quite a bit of policy that’s come over from the Senate, and so we’re going to be carefully reviewing the work that the Senate has done.”