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Vanderbilt Should Voluntarily End ‘All Comers’ Policy: Haslam

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.

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Haslam Defends Plans to Veto ‘All Comers’ Bill

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story gave the impression that Gov. Bill Haslam had already vetoed the legislation described below. In fact, as of this story’s initial posting, the governor had only announced his intention to veto the bill.

Gov. Bill Haslam said he’s receiving “some” criticism over his announcement that he will veto a bill targeting Vanderbilt University’s discrimination policy imposed on student clubs.

But he says he stands by his belief that the legislation inappropriately interferes with the affairs of a private organization.

“I think when we explain to folks, ‘Hey, if the Legislature wanted to impose their will on a private institution that you didn’t like, how would you feel about that?’” he told reporters after a groundbreaking ceremony for Middle Tennessee State University’s Science Building Thursday. “I think once you explain it that way, people tend to understand.”

Haslam announced Wednesday he would use his his first veto to strike down the bill that requiring public colleges and universities and those accepting $24 million or more in taxpayer dollars to let religious student clubs chose their membership and leadership.

The governor said he was OK with the bill when it was aimed at public colleges, such as MTSU, but adding Vanderbilt to the bill was going too far.

The measure passed easily in both chambers of the Republican-run Legislature, with minority-party Democrats opposed.

“I just don’t think it’s a road that we should go down,” House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, the chamber’s leading Democrat said Wednesday, hours before the governor announced he wouldn’t allow the measure to become law. It “was just a pretty bad bill. It was the biggest in government intrusion of a private business or institution that I can ever remember.”

The governor said Thursday he’s still weighing what action he’ll take on the so-called “gateway sexual activity” bill that encourages education about abstinence and restricts teachers from distributing materials that “condone, encourage or promote student sexual activity.”

He said he’s not sure the bill, HB3621, will do much to change current law.

“I actually was reviewing the specifics of that this morning and reading through the language, comparing it to our current practice. I actually don’t think it’s a big departure from our current practice, but I, we haven’t made a final decision,” he told reporters when asked if he would veto that bill, too.

Haslam’s philosophy on vetoing legislation rests upon whether he “felt like the bill was bad for Tennessee,” he told reporters last month. “If I felt like maybe it wasn’t bad for Tennessee, but it just added confusion to a situation, maybe I just wouldn’t sign it in that case.”