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Committee delays religious group bill

Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 10:00 PM

State lawmakers Wednesday deferred a bill that could strip Vanderbilt University of its police force.

The state Senate’s education committee voted Tuesday to wait a week to consider state Sen. Mae Beavers’ bill, SB 1241.

SB 1241 and its House version, HB 1150, introduced by fellow Wilson County state Rep. Mark Pody, would strip any public or private college or university of its police force if that school refuses to sanction or support any student organization that discriminates against potential members based on religious beliefs.

An earlier version of the bill made it through both houses last year before Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed it. Last year’s bill targeted private colleges and universities, with which Haslam took issue.

This year’s bill expands to include both public and private schools, but Vanderbilt is still the presumptive target.

“Vanderbilt has an all-comers policy, which means you would have to accept anyone into your organization whether they believed that way or not,” Beavers has said. “Not only that, you would have to allow them to hold a leadership position.”

The bill drew criticism recently from the ACLU.

“These bills are about discrimination, plain and simple,” state ACLU executive director Hedy Weinberg has said.

“Legislation that would require publicly funded institutions to recognize student groups that exclude potential members based on religion or to allow students studying counseling to refuse services based on religion uses religion to discriminate. Religious freedom in America means that every person has the right to his or her own personal, religious beliefs, and ACLU has long defended that right. But religious freedom is not a free pass that people can use whenever they want to discriminate against others.”

Tennessee Equality Project President Chris Sanders agreed.

“This is a particularly heinous attack because it would remove the university’s police force,” said Sanders. “They have chosen to make public safety a pawn.”

Beavers, however, said it relates to the Constitution.

“To me, it very much goes to our religious freedom,” she has said. “Even though Vanderbilt is a private university, it gets a lot of state money, and the state pays to police its campus.”

Sanders said campus police are not being used to enforce the nondiscrimination policy.

If Vanderbilt is ultimately stripped of its police department, Metro Nashville would become responsible for providing police coverage to the campus. According to the bill’s fiscal summary, that would cost local government more than $100,000.

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