Tennessee lawmakers approved legislation Monday that could force Vanderbilt University to change its new all-comers policy, which created an uproar among the private university's Christian population due to its perceived encroachment on their religious freedom.
The all-comers policy, implemented in Jan. 2012, prohibits campus groups from selecting members and leaders based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.
Although labeled a non-discrimination policy, Christian groups on campus argue that the new policy violates "the central tenets of our faith," as being able to elect faith-filled leaders is integral to the survival of a religious group.
The Tennessee legislation, entitled House Bill 3576, was approved 19-12 by the state's Senate, and 61-22 in the House on April 30. The bill requires Vanderbilt University to exempt religious organizations from its all-comers policy, and prohibits other public universities in the state from adopting the same "all-comers" rules.
According to the Tennessee General Assembly, the bill, "as introduced, prohibits certain colleges and universities in this state from denying recognition, privileges or benefits to a student organization or group on the basis of religious content of the organization's or group's speech or the manner in which the organization or group determines its organizational affairs."
Tennessee's Gov. Bill Haslam is currently weighing whether to veto or sign the legislation.
As reported by The Tennessean, Haslam, who has not vetoed a bill since taking office in Jan. 2011, has expressed strong reservations regarding the Vanderbilt bill.
Gov. Haslam said Tuesday that although he does not agree with Vanderbilt's all-comers policy, he is hesitant on telling the private university, located in Nashville, what to do.
"That does concern me," he said Tuesday, as reported by The Tennessean. "I don't agree with Vanderbilt's decision. I'll be really upfront about that. That being said, I do have some concerns about the state telling a private institution what to do."
Eleven of Vanderbilt's Christian organizations have formed the group "Vanderbilt Unity" in opposition to the all-comers policy.
In a statement issued April 9, the group said: "Until recently, Vanderbilt explicitly protected the freedom of all student organizations to select members and leaders who shared and supported the group's purpose, including – for religious groups – its faith."
During the student organization registration period in mid-April, several of these Christian groups purposefully submitted faith requirements in their individual charters as an act of protest. These groups did not receive university recognition.
Vanderbilt Unity also circulated around campus a seven-minute video in which students ask, "If we can't ask our leaders to be religious, what's the point of the group?"
One major qualm Vanderbilt's students maintain with the all-comers policy is that it contains language that exempts Greek life, including sororities and fraternities, from abiding by the rule.
The university's sponsor, Sen. Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), told The Tennessean that Bill 3576 would force Vanderbilt to choose between exempting its religious organizations from the all-comers policy, or expanding the all-comers policy to all student organizations, including sororities and fraternities.
Gaining university recognition is a big boost to student organizations, as it allows organizations to use the Vanderbilt name, use campus facilities for regular business, and participate in the university-run recruitment fair, as stated in Vanderbilt University's 2011-2012 student handbook.
Vanderbilt's administrators continue to stand their ground, arguing that the all-comers policy was not initiated to stifle religious freedom, but rather to encourage nondiscrimination.
"All along, we have stressed that the policy is about rejecting discrimination and not about restricting religious freedom. We firmly believe the two principles can coexist on the Vanderbilt campus, and are gratified that many of our religious student organizations agree," Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCartney said in the statement.
Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs at the university, previously told The Washington Post, "This debate is about nondiscrimination, not religious freedom, and we stand behind our policy."
According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the bill is expected to expire in one year, meaning it is meant as a warning for Vanderbilt University to work out its issues with its student organization or face tougher legislation in the future.