Tenn. Legislators Push Bill to Protect Faith-Based Groups on College Campuses

State lawmakers in Tennessee are considering legislation that would protect faith-based organizations on state college campuses from non-discrimination policies that many say actually discriminate against the groups themselves.

On Wednesday, a state Senate committee unanimously approved SB 3597, which if passed into law would prevent state colleges from denying religious groups official recognition on the basis of their religious speech and worship. It also states that religious organizations should be able to operate within their particular religious mission, and "only persons committed to that mission should conduct such activities."

This bill comes at a time when religious organizations are clashing with Vanderbilt University, a private university located in Nashville, over its non-discrimination policy that would potentially force Christian student groups to allow non-Christians as members and even leaders if they want to be officially recognized by the school.

Senator Mae Beavers (R-Mt. Juliet), who affiliates herself with the Nazarene denomination, is sponsoring SB 3597. On Wednesday, she shared with the Senate Education Committee a list of different schools – including The Ohio State University, the University of Florida and more – that have already adopted policies protecting religious groups that are similar to her bill.

One concern that was brought up before the committee by Ginger Hausser of the Tennessee Board of Regents (TBR) was that the bill could be opening TBR up to lawsuits. TBR's current student organization policy says nothing about a group's leadership, but it does say they cannot discriminate against members. The bill would change that, she argued, and could result in legal trouble.

A major part of the discussion during the committee meeting was over whether or not to extend the bill to include private organizations as well. One proposed amendment suggested giving schools the choice: If they submit to the policy they can continue to participate in the Lottery Scholarship Program. If they don't, then they couldn't be a part of the program, and couldn't accept students who want to pay for tuition with lottery scholarships.

Sen. Andy Berke (D-Chattanooga) was in favor of the bill as it was, but said that it is going too far to let the state try to dictate the policy of private institutions.

"When we start telling Vanderbilt and Sewanee [University] and all these other institutions what their policy has to be, we have gone from trying to keep the government out of things, to putting them thick in the middle of everything," said Berke.

Berke also says if students don't like policies like Vanderbilt's, then they simply shouldn't attend those school that have them.

But religious student groups at Vanderbilt that have been around for years are now being forced to reconsider if they have a place on campus or not. This week, for example, Vanderbilt Catholic announced that it will not re-register as a student organization for the fall semester of this year.

"After much reflection, discussion, and prayer, we have decided that Vanderbilt+Catholic cannot in good conscience affirm that we comply with this policy," the group's leadership board wrote in a recent letter to its members.

"While organizational skills and leadership abilities are important qualifications for leaders of Vanderbilt+Catholic, the primary qualification for leadership is Catholic faith and practice. We are a faith-based organization. A Catholic student organization led by someone who neither professes the Catholic faith nor strives to live it out would not be able to serve its members as an authentically Catholic organization."

Friar John Sims Baker, chaplain of Vanderbilt Catholic, said in a statement that the organization will continue to work as an independent ministry despite the university's policy.

"We will not cease to exist," he wrote in a letter addressed to "friends" of the organization. "As God has clearly closed this door, He has also clearly opened other windows of opportunity to propose Jesus Christ and to form His disciples at Vanderbilt and at other campuses throughout the city."

SB 3597 was sent to the Senate floor and could be voted on as early as next week, the Tennessean reports. The House Education committee will take up its companion bill on Tuesday.

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