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Pody pulls Vanderbilt bill

Sara McManamy-Johnson sjohnson@lebanondemocrat.com • Updated Jul 26, 2013 at 10:01 PM

A state bill that could jeopardize Vanderbilt University’s police force is dead in the water for now.

Rep. Mark Pody is removing his Vanderbilt-targeted House Bill 1150 pending constitutional concerns.

Pody announced Monday that he took his bill off notice in the House.

“It wouldn’t do us any good to pass a bill and then find out that it’s just going to be overturned by the courts,” said Pody.

The controversial bill stemmed from Vanderbilt University's "all-comers" nondiscrimination policy, which required university student organizations to accept members regardless of beliefs.

Under HB 1150, universities could not sanction student organizations for denying membership based on beliefs, and the state could revoke private universities' authority to maintain a police force if the university did not comply.

The bill drew criticism from the state ACLU, and a recently released opinion from Tennessee Attorney General Robert Cooper Jr., questioned the constitutionality of the proposed bill, citing First Amendment and 14th Amendment concerns.

“…[T]his nondiscrimination requirement, as applied to private universities, likely violates the private universities’ right to free association protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution,” said Cooper in his opinion.

Additionally, the bill could violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, according to Cooper.

“The constitutional infirmity of SB1241 is not cured by the fact that it withdraws the police power from private universities that exercise their right to free association rather than simply banning, outright, the exercise of that constitutional right,” said Cooper in his opinion. “It is well established that the state may not condition continued receipt of a valuable state benefit (here, the exercise of the state’s police power to commission and maintain a police force) on a private institution’s compliance with an unconstitutional condition.”

Pody said while Cooper’s opinion is just that – an opinion – it is also one of the most reliable opinions possible in the state.

“I want to be sure to stand up for our students’ religious rights without overstepping our state authority." Pody said.  “I don’t see a reason for us to pursue this if there would be other ways, especially if we could do it without using the police department.”

With this latest move by Pody, Vanderbilt’s police department is out of the hot seat for now.

“We are pleased that it appears the legislation will not move forward and that the Vanderbilt University Police Department can focus on protecting the large population of people who live and work on and near the Vanderbilt campus,” said Beth Fortune, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for public affairs, in a statement released after Pody’s announcement. “We want to further reinforce our commitment to ensuring that student religious life is alive and well on the Vanderbilt campus, and our dedication to ensuring the ability of all to enjoy that privilege continues.”

While Vanderbilt may be free from the threat of HB 1150, Pody is still not ruling out future legislation or alternate actions. He said he still believes Vanderbilt University’s "all-comers” policy is a violation of the Tennessee Constitution, Article 1 section 3 concerning religious freedom, and he has suggested student consider legal actions in the meantime.

“I do believe the students do have the rights to go through this in the judicial process, and that might be the better avenue at this point,” said Pody.

Sen. Mae Beavers, sponsor for the related Senate Bill 1241, was unavailable at press time to confirm the fate of the companion bill, but Pody said it was unlikely it would proceed through the Senate.

“The Senate usually doesn’t hear anything that isn’t going anywhere in the House because they won’t waste their time,” said Pody.

Without a corresponding House bill, the Senate bill could not become law.

“It’s not that I’m giving up on the whole idea or trying to run from it – it’s something I believe in – I’ve just got to make sure that we’re doing it in the most prudent fashion that we can,” said Pody.

He said if replacement legislation is proposed, it wouldn’t be until January.

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