State lawmakers are moving to end what one says amounts to a "don't ask, don't tell'' policy at universities and community colleges -- at least for political and religious conservatives.
The House Committee on Higher Education, Innovation and Reform approved legislation Wednesday to require schools to hire, fire, promote and grant tenure on the basis of competence and "appropriate knowledge.''
More to the point, HB 2770 would bar using any faculty member's political or religious beliefs in making those decisions. And the measure would prohibit using either factor to exclude faculty from tenure, search or hiring committees.
The vote came despite the fact that proponents could cite no specific incidents in Arizona of such discrimination. But Rep. Tom Forese, R-Gilbert, said it does exist.
Forese said he has been approached by some faculty members whose views fall outside the majority.
"They communicated to me they need to keep that to themselves and to keep quiet, especially when they were up for a promotion, when they were up for tenure,'' he told Capitol Media Services. Forese said they have to "pretend to think or believe in a different way in order to fit in.''
Forese said there's a good reason they did not come to Wednesday's hearing.
"They would never testify,'' he said, saying they feel the need to keep their beliefs secret to protect their careers. Forese said he agrees.
"Universities and community colleges, many of them lean to the left,'' he said. "They have very liberal views that are openly encouraged and expressed on their campuses.''
Deborah Sheasby, an attorney with the Center for Arizona Policy, also had no Arizona examples when she testified Wednesday. But she cited instances of discrimination from elsewhere.
Sheasby said, though, there is evidence to back Forese's contention there is a decided tilt in thinking on college and university campuses.
She cited a 2007 survey done for the Institute for Jewish and Community Research which Sheasby said found that atheists and those who consider themselves nonreligious were overrepresented among faculty. And she said while faculty were "generally tolerant'' toward religious groups, there were two exceptions.
"Half of the faculty surveyed had unfavorable views of evangelical Christians and a third had unfavorable views of Mormons,'' Sheasby told committee members. Sheasby said even if there are not specific instances of discrimination here, lawmakers should change the law as a "proactive measure.''
Rep. Steve Montenegro, R-Litchfield Park, said he has had conversations with teachers similar to those of Forese, even down to the public school level.
"Sometimes they live either in fear or they have to be extremely careful to walk that tightrope in order to not upset someone with their religious beliefs,'' he said.
Montenegro said it is important that teachers do not try to prosletyze.
"But at the same time, they should be protected themselves,'' he said. "They do have a right not to be discriminated against when they're looking to better their career or seek something like tenure.''
Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said he, too, has heard from those who claim religious or political discrimination.
"The few times I've looked into something, I've often found it was due to their own paranoia,'' he said. But Chabin said he can support this measure because it equally protects all faiths and all political beliefs.
A vote by the full House will send the measure to the Senate.