By Chas Sisk, The Tennessean
Tennessee lawmakers are considering legislation that would keep
state universities from extending nondiscrimination policies to campus
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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."
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
But that proposal drew complaints from the Tennessee Independent Colleges and University Association.
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.
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.
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
Hausser noted the 2010 Supreme Court ruling and argued
that changing those policies would open the TBR system to legal
"We feel what we've currently got is on very safe ground," she said.
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.