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The Battle of Vanderbilt: The Tennessee Legislature Steps Up

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One of the (many) great advantages of living in Tennessee is a legislature with a backbone. I've been reporting on a showdown here in Tennessee between Vanderbilt University, its religious students, and concerned alumni. The university has decided that its religious organizations are subject to a so-called "all-comers" policy and must be open to non-Christian leadership. At the same time, it has exempted the university's powerful Greek organizations — allowing the campus's most discriminatory groups to exist unmolested. 

And now the Tennessee legislature has stepped in. Vanderbilt, like many large private universities, receives staggering amounts of public funds. At the same time, however, it believes that it should receive that funding as an entitlement - treating its students and the public however it wishes while feeding at the taxpayer trough. In a strongly worded letter to the university (I'm looking to find a copy online), more than 20 legislators have indicated that while Vanderbilt has a right to define its policies, the state still retains the power to regulate publicly-funded entities:

We acknowledge that private institutions such as Vanderbilt University have the freedom to establish its associations and maintain the integrity of its institutional mission. As such, the University has the right to adopt and apply an "all-comers" policy for student organizations. But the state has a right not to subsidize any part of the operations of those organizations, like Vanderbilt University, that engage in unequal treatment of individuals and organizations, the effect of which is religious discrimination. 

The letter also focuses on Vanderbilt's core inconsistency:

Under that policy, it is our understanding that Vanderbilt will not accept for official recognition student religious organizations in which membership and leadership positions are not open to every student. But, it is also clear that the University has chosen not to apply that same criterion for University recognition to fraternities and sororities. The exemption of fraternal organizations is contary to the statement by your spokeswoman Beth Fortune, reported by Channel 4 News April 11th, "We want everyone to have an opportunity to be a member of a group and the opportunity to run for leadership positions."

Because fraternal organizations have been exempted from the all-comer's policy it appears that the University's so- called all-comers policy is being selectively applied to religious student organizations. We understand that Martinez involved a public university, but since the University's administrators want to point to it for justification of its policy, we would like to also point out that the decision makes it very clear that the policy must be applied to all student organizations. 

The legislature is asking the Vanderbilt Board to take action or the legislature will consider a bill requiring universities receiving significant public funds ($24 million or more) to either (1) protect religious liberty; or (2) create a true all-comers policy that also applies to fraternities and sororities.

In its first public response to the legislature, Vanderbilt responded with a threat of its own

"The state of Tennessee and Vanderbilt have had a long and successful partnership. Vanderbilt provides important services like TennCare. . . . This amendment puts that relationship and those services potentially at risk. We respect the difference of opinions and continue to work to resolve that."

For those not steeped in Tennessee law and politics, TennCare is Tennessee’s Medicaid managed care program. Is Vanderbilt now using its hospital as a weapon of ideological warfare? Will it actually stop treating poor Tennesseans in retaliation for being forced to either respect religious liberty or maintain consistent policies? Given that Vanderbilt also devours hundreds of millions of dollars of federal funding — and federal legislation requires hospitals receiving those funds to provide ER care without regard for ability to pay — Vanderbilt’s response is far more bark than bite. It's likely that it will serve more to anger than intimidate the Tennessee legislature.

Unfolding in Nashville is a local encounter with national implications - where Christians, beginning first at the grassroots and now moving up to the legislature, have decided they will not quietly acquiesce to the intolerance and exclusion of the academic elite. 

This article is crossposted at National Review Online.

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