People are right to condemn Vanderbilt University for concocting an anti-discrimination policy that seems prejudiced against students seeking to assemble with others who share their religious beliefs, Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam told reporters Thursday.
But Haslam said he still plans to veto a controversial bill the state Legislature passed recently that prohibits public colleges from enacting so-called “all comers” rules that require groups using campus facilities to accept as members and leaders anyone who expresses interest in joining, regardless of whether they embrace the group’s mission and values. The sticking point for Haslam is that the legislation also specifically includes Vanderbilt, a private university that accepts millions in state taxpayer dollars to provide medical care to the poor.
Conservatives who value limited government should resist assuming government has the legitimate authority to dictate operating policies to private establishments, said Haslam.
“I think Vanderbilt should do away with the policy. I don’t think it makes sense. I don’t think it’s fair. I really don’t,” he told reporters after a ceremonial bill signing at Brick Church Middle School in Nashville Thursday.
“But I don’t think the remedy for that is the state telling them, as a private institution, what they should do,” Haslam said.
Three dozen members of Congress — including four from Tennessee — sent a letter to the university urging it to abandon the “all comers” policy. The letter said the members, who belong to the Congressional Prayer Caucus, “are deeply troubled that Vanderbilt would use its freedom as a private institution to create a nondiscrimination policy that discriminates against religious student groups.”
Leadership at the university is “two-faced on this issue,” said Rep. Bill Dunn who sponsored language in the bill singling out Vanderbilt’s policy.
“In my view, they don’t really mind if this protects religious groups. But if this affects their fraternities and sororities, they might actually feel some pain,” said Dunn, a Knoxville Republican.
As of this posting, Haslam has yet to veto the bill, HB3597, although he told reporters Thursday “I haven’t changed my mind.” The hold up, he said, was the bill took a while to land on his desk. According to the General Assembly’s website, the legislation was sent to the governor Wednesday.