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TN Lawmakers Aim to Censure Vanderbilt Over Religious Liberty Violations

Tennessee lawmakers are looking for ways to censure Vanderbilt University in the wake of the university’s crack down on student religious groups. This week, they are considering a bill that would revoke state recognition for the Vanderbilt University police department.

First reported by Fix contributor Kyle Blaine in September of 2011, Vanderbilt’s so-called “anti-discrimination” policy prohibited student religious groups from requiring that their own leaders to hold the beliefs of the group itself. In other words, a Christian group, can no longer require that it’s leaders must be Christians. Because, you know, that’s “discrimination.”

The College Fix reported at the time:

The Christian groups in question — Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Sigma Phi Lamda — were placed on provisional status in April after the Office of the Dean of Students concluded that the organizations were not in compliance with the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

The noncompliance issue is the same for the four groups. Each group’s constitution contains a clause which restricts leadership positions to individuals who share the group’s core religious beliefs…

“People have come back to us and said ‘what do you mean? This is faith based. This is our values. If we change that, we are not who we are’ and what we’ve done is we’ve listened,” Helland said.

The struggle of Vandy’s religious students to retain the rights to organize their own groups as they saw fit was in danger. Ultimately, Vanderbilt leaders went forward with their move to control the leadership standards of student religious organizations. Religious liberty advocate and attorney David French pointed out the hypocrisy of the university’s new rule in an April 2012 article:

The university has decided that its religious organizations are subject to a so-called “all-comers” policy and must be open to non-Christian leadership. At the same time, it has exempted the university’s powerful Greek organizations — allowing the campus’s most discriminatory groups to exist unmolested…

Vanderbilt, like many large private universities, receives staggering amounts of public funds. At the same time, however, it believes that it should receive that funding as an entitlement — treating its students and the public however it wishes while feeding at the taxpayer trough…

Never mind the absurdity of such a rule. Religious liberty, freedom of association, and other such things don’t seem to matter much to Vanderbilt officials. Political correctness won the day.

Despite widespread protest and fallout from the new rule, Vanderbilt went ahead with it’s agenda. But not without blowback from Tennessee lawmakers, who looked at the whole spectacle with disbelief and outrage. The legislature issued a warning:

“We acknowledge that private institutions such as Vanderbilt University have the freedom to establish its associations and maintain the integrity of its institutional mission. As such, the University has the right to adopt and apply an “all-comers” policy for student organizations. But the state has a right not to subsidize any part of the operations of those organizations, like Vanderbilt University, that engage in unequal treatment of individuals and organizations, the effect of which is religious discrimination.”

However, the TN legislature’s attempts to reign in Vanderbilt by withdrawing all state funding were stymied by Republican governor Bill Haslam, who ultimately vetoed the bill that would have withdrawn state funding from Vanderbilt in May of last year. Mostly laughably, Haslam claimed to have vetoed the bill because he believed “in limited government.” (Withdrawing public funds from a private university would have been a great move for someone who believes “in limited government,” wouldn’t you say?)

Nevertheless, TN lawmakers re-emerged this week with a new plan to censure Vandy over it’s invasive “all-comers” rule. Legislators are now considering a bill that would strip the Vanderbilt Police Department of state recognition unless it abandons its restrictions on student religious groups.

The Tennessean reported on Tuesday:

Senate Bill 1241/House Bill 1150, sponsored by state Rep. Mark Pody and state Sen. Mae Beavers, would take police powers away from any university that has adopted policies that “discriminate” against religious student organizations. Seventeen universities in Tennessee have their own police departments.

But it is geared toward Vanderbilt, which has implemented a rule requiring recognized student groups to follow school policies that bar discrimination…

The Tennessean calls Vandy’s policy a “nondiscrimination policy.” What they should call it is a “pro-discrimination policy.” Because religious groups are clearly being targeted for special restrictions, which even the fraternities and sororities on campus are not subjected to. At least the Tennessean was balanced enough to include one quote from a conservative professor.

Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt professor who backs the legislation, said the university is trying to force religious clubs out of existence.

“It has put the student groups where they’re not able to grow in their faith, they have to operate underground,” she said. “These organizations will eventually wither away, and that seems to be the intent of the university.”

I have doubts about whether this new effort to motivate Vanderbilt to back away from it’s policy of religious discrimination will succeed. Gov. Haslam has already shown that he is prepared to veto any effort to censure the school. Nevertheless, I applaud the TN legislators who continue to fight to hold Vanderbilt accountable.

When efforts to govern the private religious affiliations of students are openly carried out by institutions that receive millions of dollars each year in public funds, lawmakers have a right and a duty to withhold public funds.

When religious discrimination is carried out in the name of “nondiscrimination,” we’ve reached a place in time where the word “discrimination” no longer has any meaning.

Nathan Harden is editor of The College Fix, and author of the book, SEX & GOD AT YALE: porn, political correctness, and a good education gone bad (St. Martin’s/Thomas Dunne, 2012).

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