Legislators have reintroduced legislation vetoed by the governor last year that requires colleges to recognize religious student groups that discriminate against non-believers who want to join their ranks.
The push is a reaction to Vanderbilt University exercising its “all comers” non-discrimination policy last year in refusing to recognize religious student groups that deny membership or leadership positions to any student, including those who do not conform with the club’s faith.
“I’d like to see anybody be able to worship anywhere they are with whoever they choose to worship with and not have any institution tell them they can or they can’t worship with the people of their choice,” said Rep. Mark Pody, R-Lebanon, who is sponsoring several measures to protect decisions by religious student groups.
“I just think it’s a religious freedom bill. Where it is or who it is is a secondary issue. I want to make it as inclusive as I can to all parties concerned,” he said. Pody would not rule out crafting legislation that would include both public and private universities.
He and Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet, have filed Senate Bill 802, which bans state higher ed institutions from refusing to recognize clubs based on the content of their speech or decisions to dictate membership based on whether students share the same faith. The legislation mirrors language filed last year that was eventually amended then vetoed by the governor.
House Bill 1046, filed today, would tie a university’s authority to operate campus police to allowing religious clubs to dictate their own membership. That legislation will be withdrawn, according to Pody, while he works out details of another piece of legislation in that same vein.
Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the so-called “All Comers” bill last year because the legislation included Vanderbilt, a private university. Haslam said at the time it was “inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution,” but hinted he would support the move if it applied only to public schools.
The proposals introduced so far are limited to public colleges, including those that fall under the University of Tennessee and the Tennessee Board of Regents which oversees six public universities and 13 community colleges.
“This is not an issue that really has been a problem, as far as I know, on any of the campuses of public institutions in Tennessee,” said John Morgan, the TBR chancellor who said the higher ed system would lobby against the bill. “It’s a little baffling as to why we would pass a bill that arises from the circumstance of an institution that the bill will have no effect on.”