NASHVILE Tenn. — A proposal that seeks to prevent public higher education institutions in Tennessee from discriminating against religious groups was approved by a House subcommittee on Tuesday despite criticism that it’s unnecessary and its language is ambiguous.
The House Education Subcommittee on Tuesday approved the measure sponsored by Republican Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon on a 7-2 vote.
The proposal is similar to legislation that was vetoed by Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year.
That measure tried to force Vanderbilt University a private institution to exempt student religious groups from its nondiscrimination policy.
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 said it forces them to accept students who don’t share their beliefs.
The proposal that cleared the subcommittee on Tuesday makes no reference to private institutions.
According to the bill, public higher education institutions are prohibited from withholding funding or access to facilities if “a religious student organization may determine that the organization’s religious mission requires that only persons professing the faith of the group and comporting themselves in conformity with it qualify to serve as members or leaders.”
“This bill allows students on public campuses to worship there god with whom they want to worship with,” Pody said after the meeting. “Nobody can tell them who they have to have in their organization to worship.”
In his decision to veto, Haslam said he disagreed with Vanderbilt’s policy, but added that it’s “inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution.”
Pody promised the committee that he wouldn’t amend his proposal as it progressed through the legislative system, but there were still some concerns about the bill.
David Gregory, vice chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, said he doesn’t believe the proposal is necessary. He said he’s not aware of problems at public colleges and universities that it needs to address.
Gregory said the language is also unclear in its reference to religion, which could be problematic if colleges and universities are left to interpret what it means.
David Fowler, a former Republican state senator and president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, said he doesn’t see any problem with the language and that the proposal is needed.
“We know that public colleges tend to be very liberal, they’re dominated by liberal faculty members,” he said. “It’s just a matter of time before somebody brings this issue up.”
However, Hedy Weinberg, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee, said the bill itself is actually discriminatory.
“Legislation that would require state universities and colleges to fund student groups that exclude members based on religion uses religion to discriminate,” she said. “Religious freedom means that every person has the right to his or her own personal, religious beliefs, and ACLU has long defended that right.”
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