Higher education is becoming a growing front where conservatives are using claims of “religious freedom” to justify discrimination against the LGBT community. This month, the Virginia legislature approved a bill that would require state universities to continue funding student organizations even when they discriminate based on sexual orientation in violation of university policies. Those funds come from fees students pay into, inherently privileging religious groups to funding that all students should have access to. Now, a bill (HB 1046) introduced (and immediately withdrawn) in Tennessee’s legislature by Rep. Mark Pody (R) is raising the stakes: if universities don’t tolerate the faith-based anti-LGBT discrimination, they won’t be allowed to have police departments.
Pody has led this campaign for several years because he is particularly troubled by a conflict playing out at Vanderbilt University. Christian student groups on campus have objected to the requirement that they not discriminate based on sexual orientation, claiming they themselves are being discriminated against by having to allow gay students to attend meetings and run for officer positions. The Tennessee legislature passed another of Pody’s bills last year stripping funding for Vanderbilt and any other public university with such an “all-comers” policy, but Gov. Bill Haslam (R) vetoed it. (“All-comers” is shorthand for “all who come are welcome.”)
Unsatisfied by that result, Pody is now threatening the very safety of students on campus with his will to discriminate. Though he immediately withdrew his bill, he says he still intends to replace it with another version. A separate bill also introduced (HB 534) simply creates a new law requiring the universities to tolerate discrimination, as opposed to threatening to cut their police departments if they don’t.
Pody and his allies clearly do not understand university living or learning environments. The entire purpose of nondiscrimination provisions like Vanderbilt’s “all-comers” policy is to ensure that all students have equal access to all resources on campus that they pay into. This ensures a safe and efficient learning environment for all students. It is exactly the eagerness to discriminate exhibited by these Christian groups that makes a campus environment toxic for LGBT students or other affected groups, which quickly becomes a financial burden for the university because recruitment and retention rates decline. That Pody is considering holding campus safety forces hostage to enforce this discrimination shows his motivations are selfish and guided by animus, having little to do with the academic, social, or financial success of Tennessee universities.