Tennessee Joins Bandwagon Protecting Discrimination In Higher Education

Tennessee is the latest state to be considering bills that would enshrine discrimination on university campuses. A bill from Rep. Mark Pody (R) threatening campus police departments has been withdrawn for now, but Sen. Mae Beavers (R) has introduced a bill (SB 0802) to match another House proposal that would prohibit state universities from requiring campus religious groups to not discriminate.

The argument behind this legislation is that religious groups on campus should not have to accept people who do not currently identify with that religion or with its creeds — i.e. a Christian evangelical group would be free to exclude gay students because of their anti-gay beliefs. And Tennessee has been at the center of such proposals because of Vanderbilt University’s “all-comers” non-discrimination policy. The principle behind the policy is simple: all students pay into student fees so all students should have equal access to groups who utilize that funding (“all who come are welcome”). Ohio passed a law last year banning such policies, Virginia just passed one a few weeks ago, and another has been proposed in Texas. The intention behind them all is clear: let groups discriminate.

But that’s not the only pro-discrimination legislation proposed in Tennessee this session. Rep. John DeBerry (D) has proposed a bill (HB 1185) that would also allow university counseling students to discriminate against clients. The motivation for such a policy comes from conflicting cases in Michigan and Georgia in which Christians in graduate counseling programs refused to work with gay clients because of their beliefs. Counseling curricula are based on professional standards, which dictate that gay clients should be affirmed in their identity. The passage of a such a bill would compromise those standards and encourage anti-gay discrimination.

As the ACLU describes, these bills are clearly designed to protect discrimination under the guise of religious freedom. No amount of respect for individuals’ religious beliefs justifies entitling them to discriminate against others.