A bill vetoed by Gov. Bill Haslam last year was characterized as “constitutionally suspect” in a state attorney general’s opinion released Wednesday.
The sponsor of the bill, meanwhile, said he hopes an “amicable agreement” can be worked out with Vanderbilt University to resolve a dispute that revolves around religious freedom of students. If not, Rep. Mark Pody said he will push similar legislation this year with the legal opinion in mind.
The bill in question was aimed at blocking Vanderbilt University’s so-called “all comers” policy for campus student organizations. Under the policy, all groups must accept all students as members – even in one controversial case where a Catholic students organization was told to accept an atheist member.
The bill sponsored by Pody, R-Lebanon, declares that student groups may refuse membership to persons who do not share their beliefs without being penalized.
It was drafted so that to apply to state universities – which have no “all comers” policies – as well as private universities that receive state funding. Vanderbilt receives state money through the TennCare program at it’s affiliated medical center and through some of its students receiving state lottery scholarships toward their tuition.
Attorney General Bob Cooper said in the opinion that the Legislature is on stronger ground in dictating to state institutions, but faces constitutional problems when extending the ban to private schools.
“As applied to state institutions of higher learning, (the bill) would likely be held facially constitutional,” said the opinion, which was requested by Pody. “As applied to private institutions, (the bill) is constitutionally suspect because its provisions impose a possible unconstitutional condition on the receipt of state funds and raise equal protection concerns.”
In vetoing the measure, Haslam said he disagreed with Vanderbilt’s policy, but the bill went too far.
“I don’t think it makes sense. I don’t think it’s fair,” he said of the policy. “But I don’t think the remedy for that is the state telling them, as a private institution, what they should do.”
Haslam issued the veto – the first of his tenure as governor – after the Legislature had adjourned for the year. Legislators thus had no opportunity to try overriding the veto.
Pody said after the veto that he expects to push for passage of the bill again in 2013. He said in an interview Wednesday that he has been invited to meet with Vanderbilt officials later this month and hopes that will lead to an “amicable agreement,” perhaps including modification of the Vanderbilt policy, that avoids the need for legislation.
“They’ve had time to think about it. I’ve had time to think about it,” he said.
If there is no agreement, Pody said he still wants to “make sure the religious organizations have their rights stood up for” and would proceed with legislation, though likely in a modified verision.
“If this isn’t the constitutional way, we need to find a way that is constitutional,” Pody said.
The full opinion is available HERE.
Previous post on Haslam’s veto HERE; on Pody’s reaction, HERE.