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TN Senate may shield faith-based clubs from colleges' bias rules

7:52 AM, Mar 29, 2012   |    comments
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By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean

Tennessee lawmakers are considering legislation that would keep state universities from extending nondiscrimination policies to campus religious groups.

A Senate committee unanimously approved a bill Wednesday that would prevent the University of Tennessee or the Tennessee Board of Regents systems from applying their nondiscrimination rules to faith-based campus organizations.

The bill comes in response to an ongoing controversy at private Vanderbilt University over whether that school's "all-comers" policy toward student groups should apply to religious organizations.

Similar disputes have cropped up at public and private universities nationwide, as institutions struggle over whether student groups should have to follow the same nondiscrimination policies as the schools that sponsor and fund them.

Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, has sponsored Senate Bill 3597, which categorically bans state universities from adopting policies like Vanderbilt's.

The school announced earlier this year that it would not allow university-recognized organizations to discriminate against students who want to be members or leaders, even if they disagree over central beliefs. Vanderbilt adopted the policy after a Christian fraternity expelled a member who is gay.

The policy fits into a trend nationwide of higher education institutions trying to extend their nondiscrimination policies - which often go beyond federal law - to student organizations.

The University of North Carolina and Ohio State University, for instance, have considered such policies, and they are already in place to some extent at some schools in the Board of Regents system, such as Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee State University.

The practice has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled in 2010 that the University of California's law school could refuse to recognize a Christian organization that had insisted members adhere to its beliefs.

But religious groups at Vanderbilt have fought back against the policy, which they say is discriminatory in itself. Vanderbilt Catholic, one of the biggest groups on campus, announced this week that it would leave the school at the end of this year rather than abide by the new policy.

Members of the Senate Education Committee were generally sympathetic toward that argument on Wednesday.

"Vanderbilt has adopted an absurd policy," said state Sen. Brian Kelsey, R-Collierville. "To say a Muslim student organization must accept Jews who profess no faith in the Muslim faith is nonsensical to me."

Debate in the committee mainly centered on whether they should try to extend the ban even to Vanderbilt and other private schools.

Idea shot down

Kelsey suggested denying lottery scholarship funding to any college or university that applied nondiscrimination rules to religious groups. That would have forced Vanderbilt and other private schools in Tennessee to choose between accepting students who want to pay their tuition with lottery scholarships and extending nondiscrimination policies to campus groups.

But that proposal drew complaints from the Tennessee Independent Colleges and University Association.

President Claude Pressnell said private schools should be able to decide for themselves how they will treat religious organizations, arguing that students can choose to go elsewhere if they do not like their policies.

Sen. Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, agreed.

"When we start telling Vanderbilt and Sewanee what their policy should be, we have gone from keeping the government out of things to putting it thick in the middle of things," he said.

But members of the committee shunted aside similar arguments from the Tennessee Board of Regents.

Lobbyist Ginger Hausser said the bill will force TBR schools to revisit their nondiscrimination policies, which currently require school-sponsored organizations to practice nondiscrimination among their general membership. TBR schools set no rules on how campus groups choose their leaders.

Hausser noted the 2010 Supreme Court ruling and argued that changing those policies would open the TBR system to legal challenges.

"We feel what we've currently got is on very safe ground," she said.

The vote in the Senate Education Committee sent the bill to the Senate floor, where it could receive a final vote as soon as next week.

Companion legislation is in the House Education Committee, which is scheduled to take it up next Tuesday.

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