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ACLU opposes local lawmakers
Feb 26, 2013 3:50 pm
A bill sponsored by two Wilson County lawmakers centered around denying admittance into religious organizations who don’t practice the same religion or have similar beliefs has drawn fire from the American Civil Liberties Union of Tennessee.
The House Education Subcommittee is expected to take up the bill sponsored by state Sen. Mae Beavers and Rep. Mark Pody on Tuesday. But the state ACLU says it would allow religious student organizations at state universities to discriminate against people who do not “[profess] the faith of the group and [comport] themselves in conformity with it” by prohibiting them from joining or serving in leadership positions.
“These bills are about discrimination, plain and simple,” said state ACLU executive director Hedy Weinberg. “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.”
Both Pody and Beavers said they don’t see it that way. Pody said the issue mainly focuses on Vanderbilt University.
“It started with a different bill that I was running, and I’m running that bill again this year,” Pody said. “Someone came along with a veto last year, and it had to do with Vanderbilt University. The governor vetoed it. In fact, it was the first bill this governor vetoed. You can’t have a police department that is instructed to break the Constitution. It’s just wrong.
“I just feel that in the Constitution, right there in the first Article, it says we have the right to religion. What is striking to me, if we have a police department that can arrest someone, and yet they break the Tennessee Constitution and the U.S. Constitution, that’s not right to me.”
Beavers also took issue with Vanderbilt’s state-funded police department and what she called failure to uphold the Constitution.
“To me, it very much goes to our religious freedom,” she said. “Even though Vanderbilt is a private university, it gets a lot of state money and the state pays to police its campus.”
Pody said many students he visited with during a visit to Vanderbilt recently spoke passionately on the subject.
“The vast majority of the students told me they were discriminated against based on their religion,” Pody said. “They wonder who protects them in regard to the Constitution.”
Last year, Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed Pody’s bill after it passed the Tennessee General Assembly. This year, Beavers hopes the bill doesn’t see the same fate.
“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 said. “Not only that, you would have to allow them to hold a leadership position.
“I have heard that since the governor vetoed it, there were five Christian organizations that were thrown off campus because they did not accept people into their organizations who didn’t believe they way they did.
“We’re supposed to be a country that has freedom of religion. If I have a child in school, I certainly don’t want a school forcing another religion down their throat when I have brought them up to believe a certain way and they have chosen to belong to a certain organization.”
In fact, Beavers said it was surprising the ACLU opposed the bill in the first place.
“I’ve been against them on a few bills since I’ve been up there,” Beavers said. “I’ve found them agreeing with some of my bills and not agreeing with others. I think it’s funny since they are all for freedoms, they would be against my freedom of religion bill.
“I have my beliefs. If I was going to a university and I was in a religious organization, I wouldn’t want someone telling me I had to take someone who didn’t believe like I did, much less put them in a leadership position.”
The state ACLU also plans to oppose another bill expected to be taken up Wednesday by the Senate Education Committee that would “force public higher education institutions to permit students studying counseling, psychology or social work to use religion to discriminate against clients.
Weinberg said the legislation would allow these students to refuse to provide services to people whose “goals, outcomes or behaviors” conflict with their personal religious beliefs.
He said the state ACLU opposes both bills because they mandate the use of religion in publicly funded institutions to discriminate.