NASHVILLE — A Tennessee House panel voted Tuesday to strip $100,000 from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's Office of Diversity and Inclusion and instead direct the money for printing decals stating "In God We Trust" for placement on police cars.
Members of the Education Administration and Planning Committee approved the bill, sponsored by Rep. Micah Van Huss, R-Gray.
The bill also bars the university from using funds to promote the annual "Sex Week" observance or any "gender neutral pronoun" policy. Nor could funds be used to "promote or inhibit" celebrations of religious holidays.
All three have been hot-button issues for Republican social conservatives in the Legislature and have plunged UT's Office of Diversity and Inclusion into various controversies over the past few years.
House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, told colleagues they were overreaching by moving to strip funds for non-education purposes.
"Is that what we're going to do?" he asked. "We're going to print some decals. Certainly we have the right, certainly we have the power. But sometimes power is best wielded when it's not. These guys [UT] screwed up but we cannot have a knee-jerk reaction to this."
Van Huss said his bill, which has been amended, is "definitely not a knee-jerk reaction. These are taxpayer funds. These are my constituents' dollars going to fund this department."
UT officials say some functions such as Sex Week, an annual student-led event that seeks to educate students about safe sex, rape and other issues, are not tax supported but funded through student fees directed by willing students or donations after controversies first erupted some years back.
Another controversy erupted in December after a diversity official posted on the department's website a suggestion that holiday parties are "not a Christmas party in disguise," spurring cries of a UT policy that was part of the "war on Christmas."
Rep. Rick Womick, R-Murfreesboro, defended Van Huss' bill and attacked suggestions that one official put on a UT website about use of non-gender-specific pronouns like "ze" and "hir."
"That's insanity," Womick said. "That's the English language. Just because someone had a sex change you're not going to hurt their feelings."
Apparently alluding to Sex Week, Womick said, "If you want to fornicate, go do it privately, not on tax dollars. That offends me."
The House bill now goes to the State Government Committee. Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, is carrying the companion bill that is scheduled to come up in the Senate Education Committee today.
Gov. Bill Haslam has expressed concerns about the bill.
Contact staff writer Andy Sher at firstname.lastname@example.org, 615-255-0550 or follow via twitter at AndySher1.
This story was updated March 22 at 11 p.m. with more information.