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Hot on Campus | March 30, 2012

Lawmakers move to curb Vanderbilt fallout

Religious freedom

Proposed legislation would prevent Tennessee's state schools from restricting student groups' religious liberty

The Tennessee House of Representatives meets on the opening day of the second session of the 107th General Assembly on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

The Tennessee legislature is set to pass a bill in April that would prohibit the state's universities from discriminating against campus Christian groups.

Sen. Mae Beavers, a Republican, proposed the legislation after Vanderbilt University announced plans to require religious groups to open leadership positions to students who might not agree with their beliefs. In what is turning into a mass exodus, both evangelical Protestant and Catholic groups have announced plans to move off campus next year to avoid the requirement.

Although the state's universities do not have any rules now about how campus groups select leaders, Beavers worried they would be tempted to follow Vanderbilt's lead.

"There's not much way we can affect Vanderbilt," she said. "But on the public institutions, we can certainly pass a law governing what they do."

Under the proposed legislation, all state schools must allow religious groups to determine their own internal affairs, including "selecting the organization's leaders and members, defining the organization's doctrines and resolving the organization's disputes."

If enacted, the new legislation would not apply to Vanderbilt, a private school in Nashville. But during a Senate Education Committee hearing, legislators contemplated forcing the school to change its policy by allowing students to use state scholarship money only at schools that comply with state law.

Beavers, who has served in the Tennessee legislature for nine years and now chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, believes the legislation will pass both houses easily and be signed into law before the beginning of the next school year.

Although Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy has generated a lot of national attention, state schools around the country are evaluating similar rules.

In March, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case involving two Christian groups at San Diego State University. Administrators denied the groups recognition as official student organizations because they wanted to require leaders to agree to a statement of faith. School administrators said they had a right to restrict the groups' operations, a policy upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

If religious groups continue to lose federal court battles over the issue, other state legislatures could join Tennessee in guaranteeing religious liberty on campus. Last year, Ohio legislators passed a law prohibiting state schools from denying religious student groups benefits because they pick leaders based on their beliefs.

Although officials with the Tennessee Board of Regents protested over the proposed legislation, Beavers expects them to comply with the new rules once they are signed into law. But that might not prevent some other group from filing suit.

Jeffrey Shafer, senior legal counsel for the Alliance Defense Fund, which has litigated numerous campus religious liberty cases, believes Tennessee's law has a solid legal foundation.

"We think it essentially encapsulates what the First Amendment would require in any event," he said. "A religious group is in possession of rights of free association, free speech and free exercise. This legislation does little more than guarantee that those rights are honored."