By Lucas Johnson, Associated Press
NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Republican Gov. Bill Haslam said Wednesday he would veto a measure that tried to force Vanderbilt University to exempt student religious groups from its nondiscrimination policy. It would be his first veto since taking office in 2010.
The university’s so-called “all-comers” policy requires student groups at the school to allow any interested students to join and run for office. Religious groups say it forces them to allow members who don’t share their beliefs.
Haslam said he disagrees with Vanderbilt’s policy, but it’s “inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution.”
The bill — which passed the Senate 19-12 and was approved in the House 61-22 — was sponsored by Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon and Sen. Mae Beavers of Mt. Juliet, both Republicans.
Beavers told The Associated Press she’s disappointed the administration didn’t tell sponsors there might be a veto.
“I think what Vanderbilt is doing is a real attack on religious freedom in the country,” she said. “I think they were a test case for a lot of other universities across the nation.”
Pody said the governor informed him earlier Wednesday that he plans to veto the bill. He said he would explore other ways for Vanderbilt to change its policy.
Rep. Bill Dunn, a Knoxville Republican and main supporter of the provision adding Vanderbilt to the bill, agreed.
“I think our vote says that the legislators — the people who represent Tennessee — are unhappy, the governor in his words has said that he’s unhappy,” Dunn said. “It’s just about what is the best method to get Vanderbilt to rethink their policy.”
It’s too late for the Legislature to try to override the veto, because lawmakers adjourned for the year on Tuesday.
The legislation originally targeted public colleges and universities, but was amended to add Vanderbilt.
Under the proposal, “a religious student organization may determine that the organization’s religious mission requires that only persons professing the faith of the group … qualify to serve as members or leaders.
“No state higher education institution may deny recognition or any privilege or benefit to a student organization or group that exercises such rights,” it says.
Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos issued a statement saying the school appreciates the governor’s “rejection of government intrusion into private institutions and their ability to govern and set policies themselves.”
Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner of Nashville said he had prepared a letter to send to the governor asking him to veto the proposal, so he was pleased with Haslam’s action.
“I think he did the right thing,” Turner said. “We had no business dealing with that.”
Vanderbilt says its “all-comers” policy has been in place for years, but it recently reviewed all its student groups for compliance after a gay student complained of being thrown out of a Christian fraternity.
Christian student leaders have been vocal in opposing the policy, saying their groups should not be forced to admit members, and possibly leaders, who do not share their beliefs.
Recently, two of Vanderbilt’s Christian student groups have decided to disaffiliate with the university over the policy. According to a review by The Tennessean, another 17 groups decided to comply while 11 groups are in limbo. They’re not on the university’s list of official student groups but haven’t been told their applications were rejected.
The university has said that nonregistered groups are still welcome on campus. However, they can’t use Vanderbilt’s name and will lose official school financial accounts. They also won’t be part of orientation for new students, a prime recruitment opportunity.
Vanderbilt is just one of dozens of colleges around the country that recently have reviewed how on-campus Christian groups operate. The scrutiny comes after a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that backed a nondiscrimination policy at California’s Hastings College of the Law. The Christian Legal Society had sued for official recognition — including funding and other assistance — after it was excluded because it refused to admit gay members.
Also Wednesday, Haslam said he will allow a bill seeking to limit the number of foreign workers at charter schools to become law without his signature because he questions the constitutionality of the measure and that he doesn’t want to harm the state’s efforts to improve education standards.
It’s the second time he’s allowed legislation to become law without his signature. In the other case, the measure seeks to protect teachers who allow students to critique scientific theories like evolution and global warming.
Haslam called the measure confusing.