Attorney General: Student Group Bill 'Constitutionally Suspect'

TRAVIS LOLLER | Associated Press

NASHVILLE (AP) – The state attorney general's office says a vetoed bill that took aim at Vanderbilt University's treatment of religious student groups is "constitutionally suspect."

The proposal was the result of a controversy that flared up after a gay Vanderbilt student was thrown out of a Christian fraternity. That caused the school to begin more strictly enforcing its "all-comers" policy. Vanderbilt's policy requires its student groups to allow any student to become a member and hold office, regardless of the student's beliefs.

Christian groups have protested the policy, which essentially forces them to allow gay members, and at least two groups have ended their affiliation with the university because of the policy.

The bill would have given religious student groups the right to allow only those sharing their beliefs to become members and leaders. It applied to state schools as well as private institutions receiving state funds in excess of $24 million a year.

The bill was passed by the General Assembly in May but vetoed by Gov. Bill Haslam, who said he disagreed with Vanderbilt's policy but thought it was "inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution."

In the Friday opinion, the attorney general's office says that while the law likely would be upheld as applied to state institutions of higher learning, it was "constitutionally suspect" as applied to private schools.

According to the opinion, it is likely that a court would find that the proposed law violated private schools' First Amendment protections to free association. It adds that a state cannot make the surrender of a constitutional right a condition of receiving state funds.

The opinion also says a court could find that the law discriminates against certain universities because it applies only to those receiving more than $24 million a year.

The opinion was requested by state Rep. Mark Pody, of Lebanon, who sponsored the bill along with fellow Republican Sen. Mae Beavers, of Mt. Juliet.

Neither Pody nor Beavers were immediately available for comment.

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