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May 3, 2012 Print

Haslam Vetoes Religious-Protections Bill

by Karla Dial

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced Wednesday he plans to veto a bill passed earlier this week by legislators who want to protect religious freedom at universities statewide.

Christian student groups at Vanderbilt University have been embroiled in controversy this year after administrators implemented a “nondiscrimination” policy — one that says in order to get official university recognition, campus groups must allow anyone to hold leadership positions, whether or not they agree with the group’s beliefs. Fraternities and sororities, however, are exempt from the policy.

Under SB 3597, passed by the state Senate on a 19-12 vote Monday, “a religious student organization may determine that the organization’s religious mission requires that only persons professing the faith of the group and comporting themselves in conformity with it qualify to serve as members or leaders. No state higher education institution may deny recognition or any privilege or benefit to a student organization or group that exercises such rights.” The General Assembly passed it with a 61-22 vote hours later.

An amendment to the bill specifically mentions universities receiving at least $24 million in state funds each year. Vanderbilt is a private university, but its Medical Center, which participates in Medicare and Medicaid programs, falls into that category.

“It’s particularly unfortunate,” said David Fowler, executive director of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, “since the veto of the bill not only removes the protections that had been extended to campus ministries for the next year at Vanderbilt, but defeats the protections that were given to campus ministries on all the state public college campuses as well.”

Vanderbilt administrators have said that Title IX — the 1972 law banning gender discrimination — means they must implement the “all-comers” policy to student groups. However, Greek fraternities and sororities are exempt from that law, enabling them to maintain gender-segregated groups.

“In 2010, the United State Supreme Court said colleges could have an all-comers policy, meaning they could require student groups to accept as a member, or allow any of them to run for office, regardless of whether they share the beliefs of the organization. But, the Supreme Court said, you have to apply that to all student groups,” Fowler explained. “Vanderbilt has taken the exemption for fraternities and sororities to try to circumvent what the Court has said more recently.  So they’ve been able to quiet the discontent that would be created if they applied the all-comers policy to powerful, wealthy fraternities and sororities, leaving only the Christian groups out there to be forced to accept people that don’t believe in the tenets of the religious organization.”

Read Tennessee SB 3597.

Read Tennessee HB 3576.

Watch the video Vanderbilt Solidarity distributed on April 18.

Read the joint statement issued by Vanderbilt’s Christian student groups on April 9.