Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced Wednesday that he planned to veto legislation aimed at forcing Vanderbilt University to abandon its nondiscrimination policy.
The bill, passed on Monday, would revoke about $24 million in state funding if the school refuses to back away from a policy requiring all official campus organizations to open leadership positions to all students. Thirteen Christian groups have refused to comply, saying the policy violates their religious freedom by forcing them to accept leaders who might not share their beliefs.
Legislators wanted to protect the Christian groups' freedom to operate, but in doing so, they overstepped their bounds, Haslam said in a prepared statement.
"Although I disagree with Vanderbilt's policy, as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution," he said.
Because Vanderbilt is a private school, it is allowed to set policies that might violate Constitutional protections for religious liberty at state schools. The original version of the legislation applied only to state schools, preventing them from following Vanderbilt's lead in establishing an "all-comers" policy.
In vetoing the final version of the bill, Haslam will strike down the rules for state schools as well. Sen. Mae Beavers, who sponsored the legislation, said today that she planned to reintroduce rules for state schools next year. No public universities in Tennessee currently have policies that restrict leadership requirements for religious organizations.
Haslam, who described Vanderbilt's policy as "counter-intuitive," has no problem preventing state schools from adopting similar measures: "I believe it is appropriate for state government to be involved in policies of public colleges and universities."
Despite ongoing pressure from donors, alumni and the student groups who oppose the policy, Vanderbilt administrators have so far refused to back down. Several weeks ago, students took their appeal to the school's trustees, hoping they would encourage administrators to change course. But trustees remain silent on the issue.
Administrators maintain the policy does not violate religious freedom. Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos applauded Haslam's announcement on Wednesday: "While we respect the governor's position on Vanderbilt's policy, we are gratified by his rejection of government intrusion into private institutions and their ability to govern and set policies themselves," he said in a prepared statement.
Although Haslam announced plans to veto the bill, he has not done so yet. Until he does, Beavers hopes he may change his mind. But David Smith, the governor's press secretary, said Haslam has no intention of reversing course.
The governor's opposition to the bill surprised Beavers, who said Haslam never told her he opposed the amendment that tied the legislation to Vanderbilt. Even if Haslam strikes down the bill, the legislature's action still sent a strong message to the school and helped raise awareness about what's happening on the Nashville campus, Beavers said.
"At least it looks bad for Vanderbilt that we passed this," she said. "It seems to have gotten people stirred up here."