Tenn. Governor Vetoes Vanderbilt Bill; All-Comers Policy to Remain in Place

Lawmakers Sought to Force University to Change Rules Affecting Student Faith Groups

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced Wednesday that he will veto a House bill that seeks to override Vanderbilt University's new all-comers policy that some students say discriminates against faith groups.

In a prepared statement, Haslam said he expressed strong reservations regarding the Vanderbilt bill, as it allowed the government to dictate the policies of a private institution.

"It is counter-intuitive to make campus organizations open their membership and leadership positions to anyone and everyone, even when potential members philosophically disagree with the core values and beliefs of the organization," Haslam said in the statement, as reported by The Tennessean.

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"Although I disagree with Vanderbilt's policy, as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution," he added.

The bill, entitled House Bill 2576, would indirectly change the university's all-comers policy, which was implemented in Jan. 2012.

The new policy prohibits campus groups from selecting members and leaders based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.

Eleven Christian organizations on campus, which in protest to the new rules formed "Vanderbilt Unity," said the all-comers policy violates their religious freedom because being able to elect faith-filled leaders is integral to the survival of a religious group.

The bill, which passed 19-12 by the state's Senate and 61-22 in the House on April 30, seeks to indirectly change the all-comers policy by forcing 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.

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."

The group Vanderbilt Solidarity created a seven-minute film documenting why they think the bill is an encroachment on their religious freedoms at the private university, located in Nashville.

One particular qualm the Christian students expressed in the video was that the all-comers policy exempts fraternities and sororities from practicing non-discrimination in their election of leaders and members.

Vanderbilt administrators have argued from the beginning that the policy was not implemented to stifle religious freedom, but rather to ensure nondiscrimination in student organizations, especially regarding one's sexuality.

"While we respect the governor's position on Vanderbilt's policy, we are gratified by his rejection of government intrusion into private institutions and their ability to govern and set policies themselves," Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos said in a prepared statement, as reported by The Tennessean.

This is Gov. Haslam's first veto since taking office in 2010. According to The Tennessean, Tennessee governors very rarely veto legislation because lawmakers may override the veto with a simple majority vote from both chambers, which is how the bill passes legislature to begin with.

However, The Tennessean contends that this veto will stick, as the state's lawmakers adjourned their sessions for the year Tuesday, and expressed no plans to hold an emergency meeting to re-vote the legislation.

The bill should arrive on Gov. Haslam's desk within the next few days to receive his official veto signature.

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