The House last night passed the bill prohibiting all-comers policies for university student organizations, along with a toothless provision targeting private Vanderbilt University.
The bill passed the Senate on Monday and now goes to Gov. Bill Haslam, who has expressed concerns about the idea of the state instructing a private university on its policies. Although House sponsor Rep. Mark Pody had placed his bill on the desk last week, after a heated debate over Rep. Bill Dunn's Vanderbilt provision, the Senate adopted the same amendment and passed the bill, allowing Pody to substitute for the companion legislation and soldier on in the House.
The provision targeting Vanderbilt does not include a financial penalty, and when pressed about the consequences the school might face for ignoring it, Pody simply said, repeatedly, he "did not address" the issue of enforcement. Supporters have said they might revisit the issue next year, though if Vanderbilt does not repent of its policy requiring student organizations to allow anyone to become a member.
The original bulk of the bill applies to the state's public universities, who have indicated no intention of implementing all-comers policies.
But the after-hours debate — the second on the matter in the last week — was no less contentious as a result of the bill's limited practical effect.
Democrats proclaimed their embarrassment and disbelief at the idea that the state should reach into a private institution, particularly for the purpose of stopping an anti-discrimination policy. In a bizarre political moment, they sought to evoke supposed conservative ideals of limited government and local autonomy while Republicans continually cited the ability of government to effect important change and right a wrong.
Several Republicans presented framed the debate as a chance for members to pick which side of history they'd be on.
"If you vote against this bill, you're for discrimination," said Rep. Glen Casada, the face of the last anti-anti-discrimination bill, 2011's HB600.
Not surprisingly, Rep. Richard Floyd - who has a particular knack for turning a memorable phrase — took it a few steps further. He pledged his life in support of the measure, saying if someone came into the chamber with a machine gun, he'd be the first in line to take a bullet for it.
Eventually, the bill passed by a vote of 61-22, with 13 legislators abstaining. Rep. Curry Todd was the only Republican who opposed the bill.
Last year, despite widespread criticism from citizens and the business community, Haslam signed HB600, which nullified an anti-discrimination ordinance passed by Nashville's Metro Council. While this bill, SB3597, would not actually nullify the Vanderbilt policy, because it includes no means of force, the intent is the same. The governor's comments on the matter were characteristically Haslamian — expressing enough concern to sound interested, but not enough that he'd be held to it.
Well aware that the bill was sure to pass, lawmakers started appealing to him before the vote last night.
"If our governor is listening tonight," said Democratic Caucus Chairman Mike Turner, "this is the one you need to veto, right here."