NASHVILLE (AP) – Opponents of a Vanderbilt University policy banning discrimination in student groups want to enact a law to strip the private school of its police powers if it doesn't change its ways.
The bill sponsored by Republicans Sen. Mae Beaver of Mt. Juliet and Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon was the subject of competing press conferences at the Legislative Plaza in Nashville on Tuesday.
"If you discriminate against religious groups, if you deny them the right of assembly protected by the First Amendment, then you can do that," said David Fowler, president of the Family Action Council of Tennessee, in support. "We just will not let you have the authority to arrest our citizens."
Meanwhile at the other press conference, Vanderbilt Police Chief August Washington asked why school security should be tied to the policy on religious groups.
"I don't see the correlation," he said. "What I'm interested in is the public safety."
Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year vetoed a bill to do away with Vanderbilt's "all comers" policy, which requires student groups at the school to allow any interested students to join and run for office. Religious groups argue the policy forces them to accept students who don't share their beliefs.
Haslam said he disagrees with Vanderbilt's policy, but opposes targeting a private institution. Fowler said sponsors would put off considering this year's measure for a week while the governor's office seeks a legal opinion about the measure from the attorney general.
Cory Slovis, Vanderbilt's chairman of emergency medicine, said downgrading the university police would have negative consequences for hospital operations, which are currently locked down when treating victims of violent crime.
"Whether it's individual against individual, or a gang member who is assaulted by a rival gang, Vanderbilt is off limits because it is well-protected," Slovis said.
"It is, to me as an individual, unbelievable that we're considering this," he said.
But to Vanderbilt political science professor Carol Swain, who opposes the nondiscrimination policy, the change in state law could force the school's hand on an issue that she said has forced some student groups "to operate underground."
"I realize as a private institution, Vanderbilt does not have to respect the First Amendment rights of its students," she said. "But you would think that an institution of higher education would want to do so, because they're supposed to be training the leaders of tomorrow."
The Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police and the Tennessee Sherriff's Association oppose the bill.
"Providing a safe and secure campus community and protecting student and staff residents, regardless of their philosophical beliefs, is the foundational mission of a college or university law enforcement agency," Maggi Duncan, executive director of the police chiefs association, wrote to Beavers.
House Majority Leader Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, said he had little interest in seeing the legislation aimed at a private university progress.
"Let's just let Vanderbilt run Vanderbilt," he said.
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