College will now allow club to travel to AL despite LGBT law

A California community college’s board of trustees has reversed its decision to ban its rocketry team from competing in Alabama, which is the subject of a state travel ban over LGBT rights.

The Citrus College Rocket Owls were one of just two community college rocketry teams to qualify for NASA’s annual Student Launch, a prestigious competition that involves an arduous design process and culminates in a launch. 

The seven-member Rocket Owls team is in competition with significantly larger and better-funded teams from 45 other schools, including the Naval Academy, Cornell University, and Carnegie Mellon University. 

[RELATED: CA politics sends college rocketry team’s hopes up in flames]

According to the Citrus College Clarion, the team has participated in five previous NASA Student Launches, but something was different in 2018. 

In September 2016, California enacted AB 1887, a law prohibiting California state-funded or state-sponsored travel to states that have enacted what California deems to be anti-LGBT laws, including one passed by Alabama, the site of this year’s competition. 

Ignoring questions over whether this prohibition applies to community colleges, Chancellor of California Community Colleges Eloy Ortiz Oakley issued an August directive that not only denies travel funds to groups visiting banned states, but forbids privately-funded travel as well. 

“As a matter of policy, the Chancellor’s Office will not approve requests from our local community college districts to travel to an AB 1887 restricted state, regardless of the funding source for the proposed out-of-state travel,” the directive stated. 

[RELATED: NCAA pulls championship games from NC over transgender bathroom law] 

While at least two of the other five California teams had gained approval to travel to Alabama using private funds, the Rocket Owls remained suspended because, as a community college, they fell under Chancellor Oakley’s jurisdiction, although Oakley denied his involvement in a vaguely-worded tweet declaring that his office “did not deny any student the ability to attend this event.”

The team decided to commit to the competition while it appealed the decision, and donations poured in as both the president of Citrus College and its Board of Trustees spoke out against the group attending, citing issues of “human rights” and “civil rights.”

Paul Swatzel, a mathematics professor at Citrus College, told Campus Reform that he argued the team’s case at a Board meeting in early January and donated $500 to the travel fund, but to no avail.

The students then made their case to the Board in-person in February, where team member Asaad Marcha, a Syrian refugee, argued that “two wrong actions do not make a right.” Although the students were pessimistic about their chances, public outcry soon came to the rescue.

Huntsville resident Homer Hickam, a Vietnam veteran and famed author of the novel Rocket Boys, took up the team’s cause and launched an extensive social media campaign to reverse the decision. 

Hickam mocked the California law and attacked the state for hindering learning, suggesting in a Twitter argument with Oakley that the issue had nothing to do with “LGBTQ people.” 

[RELATED: NY colleges shun Duke over NC bathroom bill] 

“They're going to eventually have to lock up everybody in their entire state and build a wall around it. This is because none of us out here are ever going to attain the moral purity as the members of that august body,” he later commented, with Huntsville, Alabama Mayor Tommy Battle remarking that “politics sometimes gets in the way of common sense.” 

“Gay politics aside, which this has nothing to do with anything, these kids deserve to come to this competition. Don't you have any compassion? You have compassion for a lot of folks but don't you have any compassion for your own students? So far, no reply,” Hickam added in a statement to WAFF 48

Following the public pressure, the Citrus College Board of Trustees agreed to reconsider the matter, noting in their agenda that legal counsel “confirmed that the Chancellor’s Office does not have the legal authority to compel community colleges to follow the directives in AB 1887.” 

At the March 20 meeting, some spoke in favor of the trip, and when the Board unanimously approved the Rocket Owls’ privately-funded trip to the NASA Student Launch with no discussion, the room erupted in applause.

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @SFarkas48