Students, alumni and a handful of state legislators are voicing their opposition to Vanderbilt University’s controversial "all-comers" nondiscrimination policy in advance of key Vanderbilt Board of Trust meetings on Thursday and Friday.
A meeting by the full board on Friday will be the second time it has convened since Vanderbilt expounded on its all-comers policy at a town hall meeting in January.
The policy requires that all university-recognized student organizations, including religious groups, must be open to all students. It also maintains that religious groups can’t discriminate based on beliefs — which has created backlash from Christian organizations.
Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) and 22 other Republican House members addressed a letter to the board of trust and asked them to reconsider the application of all-comers to religious groups. Dunn’s office confirmed that the letter was supposed to be sent yesterday.
“We acknowledge that private institutions such as Vanderbilt University have the freedom to establish its associations and maintain the integrity of its institutional mission,” Dunn wrote to the Board. “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.”
Dunn is currently supporting House Bill 3576, which will prevent public universities from adopting a similar all-comers policy. There was also a proposed amendment to HB3576 that includes withholding state funding from private institutions that receive more than $24 million in taxpayer money.
“In the event you do not [reconsider the all-comers policy], we have tried to find a way to balance our concerns that state funds not be given to institutions that discriminate against religious organizations with the University’s right to set its own policies,” Dunn wrote.
The amendment was withdrawn in the House Education Committee last week so that the legislators could address the Vanderbilt Board of Trust for their input.
Vanderbilt Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Beth Fortune said the school has received the letter and is working with legislators.
“The state of Tennessee and Vanderbilt have had a long and successful partnership. Vanderbilt provides important services like TennCare,” Fortune said. “This amendment puts that relationship and those services potentially at risk. We respect the difference of opinions and continue to work to resolve that.”
The letter recognized that other universities, including Ohio State University, provided provisions in their all-comers policy that allowed religious organizations to exclude students who didn’t adhere to certain beliefs.
Fortune said the deadline for student organizations to apply for membership was earlier this week and that the large majority of groups, including religious groups, have reapplied and are expected to be in full compliance with the all-comers policy.
In addition to legislators, an activist group backed by Americans United for Freedom called Restore Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt plans to run ads on local cable channels while the trustees are in town this weekend, according to RRFV spokesman Russ Jones.
Jones said funding for the ads came from concerned alumni — and that “this is just the first flight” of ads. One of the advertisements urges Vanderbilt alumni to cease donating, using “Not Another Dime” as a slogan.
In addition to the TV ads, The Vanderbilt Torch, the self-described “conservative and libertarian commentary magazine,” is sponsoring a public lecture on Thursday night by conservative speaker and author Dinesh D’Souza.
D’Souza’s speech is titled “How Christianity Shaped America: Religious Liberty and Liberal Intolerance.”
“The Intercollegiate Studies Institute arranged for this visit thinking that it was very timely given the situation at Vanderbilt due to Mr. D’Souza’s experience and his work,” Torch Editor-in-Chief Valerie Hsu said. “I anticipate that he definitely will [address the all-comers policy] because the situation at Vanderbilt has gained such national media attention that it’s impossible to separate his lecture and his topic from the situation at hand.”