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General Assembly passes military recruiting bill, saves federal funding

Connecticut's General Assembly last Wednesday adopted a bill that gives military recruiters access to UConn and other state colleges and universities, ending a dilemma the schools faced between trying to comply with conflicting federal or state laws.

Ultimately, federal law - and the accompanying threat of losing $60 million in student and research support from various federal sources - held sway. The final vote, in the state House of Representatives, came after an hour of sometimes emotional debate, and months of effort by UConn administrators and the state's Congressional delegation to resolve the issue in Washington.

Acting during a special session of the legislature, the state Senate approved the bill 32-2, with the House of Representatives following almost immediately afterward, 104-36.

The state law passed Wednesday compels UConn and other colleges to provide access to directory information and on-campus recruiting opportunities to representatives of the armed forces "to the extent necessary under federal law to prevent the loss of federal funds to such constituent unit or the State of Connecticut." The University will continue to bar from campus recruiters, other than those from the military, whose employer discriminates for any reason.

"The action taken by the General Assembly today is, of course, good news for the University of Connecticut. It assures the University's access to some $60 million of federal funds which were in danger; it removes the University from the very difficult position in which it found itself - between a Connecticut State Supreme Court order and Congressional mandate; and it enables us to continue to adhere to the principles of diversity and inclusiveness which we value so highly," said Mark Emmert, chancellor.

Governor John G. Rowland, who called the special session, is expected to sign the bill.

The legislation extricates UConn and other state institutions of higher education from the position of having to choose between losing millions of dollars, as the federal legislation, mandates, or violating a 1996 state Supreme Court ruling upholding Connecticut's gay rights law, which prohibits recruiters who represent employers that discriminate against people because of sexual preference from recruiting on public college campuses.

The fact that the bill was written so it would have the least impact possible on the state's gay rights laws, added to the fact that significant student financial aid and research funding were in jeopardy, was cited by many legislators as the only reasons they could support it. That language also persuaded the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union (CCLU), whose attorneys brought the case to the state Supreme Court, to agree not to oppose the bill.

"While I think it is unfortunate that the federal government has chosen to force Connecticut down this path, I think we have reached an understanding on language that is the best that can be drafted under existing circumstances," said Joseph S. Grabarz Jr., executive director of the CCLU.

Though the measure carried in each chamber by a wide margin, the votes didn't come without intense debate.

"Would we let the military on our campuses if they only interviewed white people? If they excluded Italians, or thought Asians were dangerous?" yelled state Rep. Richard Tulisano, D-Rocky Hill. "This is not an issue about gay rights, it's an issue about what's right."

Rep. Evelyn Mantilla, D-Hartford, sounded a note that rang through the two halls often during the debate, expressing her resentment that the federal government was "holding us hostage."

"To vote in favor of this legislation would violate one of the most basic reasons I had for joining this chamber - to protect the rights of every individual in this state," Mantilla added.

Richard Veilleux