Haslam’s First Veto to Strike Down Challenge to Vanderbilt’s Discrimination Policy

A bill that would have required all public universities — and Vanderbilt University because of the level of government money it accepts —  to allow student campus organizations to control their own membership qualifications has prompted Gov. Bill Haslam to announce he’ll use his first veto.

The legislation came as a response to Vanderbilt’s administration adopting a policy requiring that student groups accept “all comers” into their membership and leadership, regardless whether they share the same philosophical views as the organization. The policy has driven more than a dozen clubs off campus for refusing to abide by the policy for fear that people would join religious groups without sharing their beliefs.

“I don’t agree with Vanderbilt’s ‘all-comers’ policy. 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,” said Haslam in a statement the day after the Legislature adjourned for the year.

The governor said he was on board with House Bill 3576 when it applied only to public schools supported by taxpayer funds. But he said lawmakers went too far when they decided to extend the restrictions to Vanderbilt, a private university that accepts millions of dollars to provide medical care to low-income and uninsured patients through its health facilities.

“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. Therefore, I will veto HB 3576/SB 3597 in its current form,” he said.

The governor’s veto holds marginal veto power in Tennessee. The General Assembly need only a majority vote to override his veto, but that’s assuming lawmakers want to reassemble on Capitol Hill to override him, which is unlikely.

Late in the legislative session, lawmakers added a provision that would include Vanderbilt University in addition to public schools in allowing student clubs to dictate membership. It says:

“No state higher education institution that grants recognition to any student organization shall discriminate against or deny recognition to a student organization, or deny to a student organization access to programs, funding, or facilities otherwise available to another student organization, on the basis of… the religious content of the organization’s speech including but not limited to, worship.”

The legislation also added that “a religious student organization may determine that the organization’s religious mission requires that only persons professing the faith of the group and comporting themselves in conformity with it qualify to serve as members or leaders.”

“Our intent is to make sure that religious organizations, student religious organizations are not held to a rule they do not hold other student organizations to. In other words, they have told the student religious organizations that you have to accept everyone whether or not they hold your beliefs or not ” said Sen. Mae Beavers, R-Mt. Juliet. “Not only do you have to accept them, but you have to put them in leadership position if they want to be in leadership position.”

Both retiring Sens. Roy Herron, D-Dresden, and Andy Berke, D-Chattanooga, pulled the small government card on Beavers shortly before the bill passed the Senate 19-12-2 Monday. The House later passed the bill 61-22-1.

“I don’t know that I think big government coming in and running private institutions is what people in my district want. I know this much, it’s not conservative and it’s not getting government out of people’s lives,” said Herron.

The governor also said he is refusing to endorse a bill that would limit the number of foreign nationals a charter school can hire to teach. Instead, he will let the bill become law without his signature and is asking the attorney general to weigh in on the legislation’s constitutionality.