After a lengthy debate that evoked references to devil worshippers and apartheid, the Senate passed a bill prohibiting all-comers policies at the state's public universities, along with an amendment that targets private Vanderbilt University specifically.
The amendment caused a heated debate last week when Rep. Bill Dunn offered it in the House. The bill was eventually placed on the desk and will need a two-thirds vote to be taken up again in that chamber.
The amendment essentially gives Vanderbilt a choice: Either exempt religious organizations from a recently adopted policy that requires student organizations to allow anyone to join, or apply it to all student organizations including fraternities and sororities.
According to Dunn, legislators already have Vandy's answer to that dilemma. After Dunn and 22 other legislators sent a letter to the school's board of trust, Dunn said he got word from individuals familiar with the board's discussions that they plan to run their private institution however they like.
In the Senate today, Democratic Senators Roy Herron and Andy Berke argued that the bill was a case of the state overstepping its bounds, and all in the name of preventing an anti-discrimination policy. Berke said he opposed the amendment because, among other reasons, it went against the bill's original purpose, which was, ostensibly, to keep government — in the form of state schools — from telling religious organizations what to do.
At one point, Herron even read from the list of Vandy board members, reminding Republicans that it was a highly conservative list. Several times, he called them out for an apparent contradiction.
"I just don't think this is the type of action a conservative body should take," Herron said. "Where's all the talk about getting government out of our lives?"
Opponents also disputed the characterization of the public funds Vanderbilt receives. They pointed out that lottery scholarships are rewarded to students, not schools, and that TennCare funds are given because Vanderbilt Medical Center provides free care.
In the face of opposition, and criticism from party leaders upset with members bringing up such an amendment on the floor, the bill's supporters and Senate sponsor Mae Beavers have been making much of the fact that the amendment does not actually include any financial penalties for Vanderbilt. Furthermore, the provision sunsets next year. Perhaps overestimating the effect of what amounts to a sternly worded note — as this legislature is prone to do — Beavers said the year will give Vandy a chance to rethink their policy.
But the most puzzling moment of the debate came right before the vote, when she appeared to contradict herself and her amendment.
Pressed by Herron whether the bill would force universities to recognize a group of devil worshippers or Klan members who claimed religious principles as the basis for their membership policies, Beavers said that such a decision would be up to the school.
Of course, that is precisely the opposite of what her amendment does. Perhaps she was alluding to their free will, in the same sense that it's up to me if I want to speed on the highway or not?