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Vanderbilt Reaps What it Sows: Tennessee Legislature Passes Bill Banning ‘All Comers’ Policy

Vanderbilt's assault on religious liberty on campus looks like it's headed for a crushing, if utterly predictable, defeat. Last night, the Tennessee legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that would ban Tennessee's public universities as well as any private university that gets more than $24 million in funding a year (there's only one: Vanderbilt!) from telling religious student groups that they can't have belief-based requirements for membership or leadership. Interestingly, the legislature did give Vanderbilt an out: If it's willing to apply an "all comers" policy to fraternities, sororities, and all other groups as well, it can keep its "all comers" policy for religious groups. (Vanderbilt has exempted its powerful fraternities and sororities from its inaccurately named "all comers" policy.) Former FIRE President David French, writing in The Corner, lays out the background:

It is difficult to fully describe the mendacity and bad faith of senior Vanderbilt officials throughout this process. University officials claimed that they were merely enforcing an old policy — yet they've been confronted with irrefutable evidence of written policy changes that removed protections for religious groups. They compared Christian students seeking Christian leadership for their groups to segregationists. According to multiple sources, they falsely told their own board that their nondiscrimination policy was necessary to preserve federal and state funding. They misled the legislature by claiming that no one had made a written appeal to the university's Board of Trust, when the Board had received multiple written appeals (including one I authored). Finally, when the legislature indicated that it was willing to protect religious liberty on campus, Vanderbilt responded by threatening to opt out of Tennessee's managed-care Medicaid program, causing massive disruption in medical care for Nashville's poorest citizens. 

Vanderbilt has indeed acted disgracefully throughout this process. What is particularly shocking is that in the face of so much opposition to its policy, Vanderbilt's entire university apparatus, from its low-level administrators on up to the Board of Trust, has dictated its decision without trying to honestly confront any dissenting opinions. (The single time that administrators did face dissenting students in a "town hall" meeting, Vanderbilt's provost flat-out told students that they would be foolish to use their religious faith to guide their everyday lives.)

How'd that work out for you, Vandy? Here's how: the bill was passed by the Tennessee House by a 61-22 vote (an overwhelming 73% to 27% blowout) and the Senate by a 19-12 vote (a mere 22-point landslide). It now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam for his signature or veto.

What does this demonstrate? Most obviously, it demonstrates the fact that the actual constituency for restricting religious liberty in America is limited mostly to out-of-touch campus administrators and their fellow travelers. Indeed, according to this article in The Tennessean, the actual debate was over whether the state should use its spending power to apply this policy to a private school like Vanderbilt—there was no mention that any legislator had a problem with barring de facto discriminatory "all comers" policies at Tennessee's state universities. FIRE often says that universities cannot defend in public what they do to their students in private. This is an excellent example of that principle in action. 

Second, it demonstrates that college infringements on student rights don't go unnoticed and unaddressed forever. Colleges are given a huge amount of leeway by state legislatures and Congress to conduct their affairs as they see fit. That's as it should be. But if you're a huge, prestigious, non-sectarian university that takes millions upon millions of dollars from the state, you might want to consider that the legislature of that state might have more than a little concern about what the recipient of all that money is doing to its students. Frankly, setting up a policy regime where over a dozen religious student groups are preparing to leave campus because you saw fit to pass a completely unnecessary and discriminatory policy shows a level of incompetence that is hard to fathom. Were I a member of Vanderbilt's Board of Trust, you can bet I would be demanding that heads start to roll in Vandy's bloated administrative suites.

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