Tennessee Legislators Attack Religious Freedom and University Autonomy

In an example of terrible legislation, the Tennessee House and Senate this week approved a new law (if it’s signed by the governor) compelling public universities (and the private Vanderbilt University) to allow student groups to discriminate against students based on religious beliefs and private behavior. It’s an attack on the religious liberty of individuals, and a violation of university autonomy.

Although conservatives have celebrated this new law as a victory for religious freedom, it’s actually a restriction on the religious liberty of individuals and the autonomy of student organizations. It’s only a victory for certain right-wing national religious groups who want to banish gay student leaders and distrust the members of their own student groups to obey their authority. Now they can force these student groups to impose repressive (and often ridiculous) rules that allow liberal students to be banned from religious student organizations.

It’s obviously hypocritical for conservatives who claim to respect private organizations and fear big government to then turn around and compel private Vanderbilt University to obey their terrible ideas about how student organizations should be run. But it’s almost as offensive for these legislators to try to micromanage the policies of public colleges.

Here’s what the law proclaims: “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.”

Note that this law goes far beyond what most advocates of discriminatory student groups have urged by including members as well as leaders on the banishment list.

These rules do not give the student organization itself the power to determine what individuals fail to meet these standards; the law only allows the student group to impose the standards, not the power to enforce them. A public university cannot allow the members of a student group to decide whether any specific students fail to meet the faith requirements, because it is possible that the students might banish a student who actually follows the credo of a group, which would then be an act of religious discrimination which the university is still required to prohibit. So the administration must ultimately decide whether a student’s beliefs or actions violate the rules of a particular group, as it enforces all other rules in a student organization’s constitution.

This, of course, is a terrible idea. The notion of public university administrators investigating the religious beliefs of students is horrifying to anyone actually concerned about individual liberty. There is still some hope that student organizations can be persuaded to reject these restrictions on religious liberty and infringements upon the right of students to determine their own leaders. The best way to do that is by requiring student groups to make an explicit admission of the fact that discriminatory rules give the administration to overrule the decisions of student groups.

Vanderbilt (and all the public universities in Tennessee) should create very specific rules stating that any student group wishing to have the discriminatory rules allowed by the new law must provide a specific definition of every regulated belief or activity they wish to impose on students, and include the following statement in their student organization’s constitution: “We hereby authorize the administration to remove any members or leaders of this student group after holding a hearing to investigate their personal beliefs and private behavior, even if banning these students is opposed by a majority of the members of this group.”

Of course, it’s doubtful that any university will have the courage to stand up against legislators and expose how misguided the campaign for discriminatory student groups is.

The best option is simple: let the students decide. That’s the goal of Vanderbilt’s much-maligned “all-comers” policy. It protects students from repressive administrators by letting the students in the group determine who their leaders should be and what religious values they should follow. And it allows all students the freedom to join student organizations without discrimination.

Unfortunately, Tennessee’s legislators, lobbied by a heavy campaign of misinformation, want to embrace big government rather than individual religious freedom. Now that student groups have the power to impose repressive rules on themselves that give administrators more power over them, we must persuade students to reject these rules and embrace religious freedom instead.

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