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Tennessee Legislators Introduce New Bill to Combat ‘All-Comers’ Policies

By February 18, 2013

Last May, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam vetoed a bill that would have prohibited public institutions of higher education located in Tennessee from maintaining “all-comers” policies, while stripping state funding from large private universities that chose to do so (such as Vanderbilt University). These controversial policies prohibit student organizations, most notably religious and political groups, from making belief-based decisions about leadership and membership. (For more background on Vanderbilt and on all-comers policies, check out this column my colleague Robert Shibley published last year.)

Earlier this month, new bills (SB 0802 and HB 0534) were introduced in the Tennessee Legislature to revisit this important issue. The bills, which contain identical text, read in relevant part:

(a) 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:

(1) The religious content of the organization’s speech including, but not limited to, worship; or

(2) The organization’s exercise of its rights pursuant to subsection (b).

(b) 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.

(c) As used in this section, “state higher education institution” means any higher education institution governed by chapter 8 or 9 of this title.

SECTION 2. This act shall take effect July 1, 2013, the public welfare requiring it.

Tennessee Code Annotated, Title 49, Chapter 7, Part 1, Section 118, which this legislation would amend, allows private universities that meet certain enrollment, employment, accreditation, and location requirements the option to maintain a state-sanctioned police force rather relying on private security. Vanderbilt University is the only institution in Tennessee that meets these criteria.

SB 0802 and HB 0534 would remove Vanderbilt University’s authority to maintain a state-sanctioned police force unless it gives up its all-comers policy. It therefore presents the university with a choice: Keep the policy that violates basic tenets of freedom of association, or keep its state-sanctioned police force.

Ever since Vanderbilt’s modified all-comers policy went into effect, belief-based groups have been forbidden from making belief-based decisions about members. (Fraternities and sororities are allowed to continue making sex-based decisions about members.) The policy has led 13 religious groups to leave the campus in order to maintain the integrity of their beliefs. In response, the Tennessee legislature has been looking for a way to induce Vanderbilt to abandon the policy that has made its campus so inhospitable to so many belief-based organizations. FIRE hopes this latest effort will convince Vanderbilt to see the error of its ways.

Schools: Vanderbilt University