published Thursday, March 14th, 2013

Constitutional concerns raised over Vanderbilt University police bill

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The state’s attorney general has raised constitutional concerns over an effort to strip Vanderbilt University of its police force because of a nondiscrimination policy for student groups.

Attorney General Bob Cooper said in an opinion released today that he sees no legal problems with requiring public colleges and universities to bar such policies. But he said it would be problematic to impose a possibly “unconstitutional condition” on a private institution.

“The General Assembly cannot assert ... through an unrelated requirement that a private university abandon its right of free association,” Cooper said in the opinion.

Republican Rep. Mark Pody of Lebanon requested the opinion on his bill seeking to curtail police activity at the school if it doesn’t abandon its nondiscrimination policy among student groups.

Pody said he was disappointed by the legal opinion, but said he was still studying the analysis to see what his next steps should be.

“We could amend the bill, keep running it this way or finding a different course of action,” he said.

The Vanderbilt policy prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, genetic information or sexual orientation. To be sanctioned by the university, student groups must open membership to all students and allow all members in good standing to seek leadership posts.

Christian groups have protested the policy, saying it forces them to allow nonbelievers and gay students to join. Vanderbilt officials say about 15 student groups have refused to comply with the policy and more than 480 groups have accepted it.

Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last year vetoed a more general bill seeking to ban college nondiscrimination policies because it sought to control the policies of private schools like Vanderbilt. The governor told reporters earlier in the week that he wasn’t more enamored about the renewed effort.

“I had problems with last year’s, and I’m not so certain that this isn’t just kind of a way to go around the corner and do the exact same thing,” Haslam said. “I also have questions whether any remedy that involves taking away a protective force is a good remedy.”

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