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Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam talks about education and his budget to the editorial board at the Times Free Press.
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NASHVILLE — Despite reservations, Gov. Bill Haslam on Friday let a legislative resolution directing the state to sue the Obama administration over the federal refugee resettlement program go forward.

The Republican also allowed a bill to become law that defunds the University of Tennessee at Knoxville's diversity office for one year.

Haslam declined to sign either measure, but in the absence of a veto, unsigned bills or certain resolutions passed by the General Assembly take effect anyway.

"I have constitutional concerns about one branch of government telling another what to do," Haslam said in his statement to lawmakers on the refugee resettlement resolution.

Because of that, Haslam said he is asking state Attorney General Herbert Slatery for a legal opinion on the matter, especially a provision that would allow lawmakers to retain outside legal counsel on behalf of the state.

Tennessee Democratic Party spokesman Spencer Bowlers blasted Haslam for not vetoing the resolution instead, charging the governor "caved to right-wing extremists" in the GOP-dominated General Assembly "once again."

"Refusing refugees who are in desperate need of a place to seek shelter from war and hardship creates a culture of fear for the immigrant communities in Tennessee," Bowers said. "It's not who we are as a state and Governor Haslam should be ashamed of his inaction today."

The resolution directs Slatery to sue over the program. The lawsuit was something Republicans clamored for as the Syrian refugee crisis continued and after the December terror attacks in Paris. But if Slatery won't file suit, sponsors say the Michigan-based Thomas More Law Center has offered to represent the state for free.

Haslam said he wanted to "clarify whether the legislative branch actually has the authority to hire outside counsel to represent the state."

"I also question whether seeking to dismantle the Refugee Act of 1980 is the proper course for our state," Haslam said in his message. "Rather, I believe the best way to protect Tennesseans from terrorism is to take the steps outlined in my administration's Public Safety Action Plan."

The Tennessee Immigration and Refugee Rights Coalition, which advocates for refugees, called the More Law Center "an extremist and anti-Muslim law firm."

Stephanie Teatro, TIRRC's co-executive director, said the group is disappointed by Haslam's decision but agreed the resolution "is constitutionally suspect and that the legislature has overstepped its authority."

"As the global refugee crisis persists, we urge Governor Haslam to act with greater moral authority and courageous leadership," she said in her statement. While the group appreciated the governor's comments, Teatro said that "by failing to veto this dangerous and misguided resolution, the governor has helped secure Tennessee's reputation as the most unwelcoming state in the country."

Regarding the law now stripping the UT Knoxville campus's Office for Diversity and Inclusion of $446,000 for the 2016-2017 budget year, Haslam noted it had changed from the original intent to strip the money permanently.

Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who sponsored the bill in the upper chamber, amended the original bill, which sought to defund the office for one year and divert the money into engineering scholarships for minority students.

That was done over the objections of the House sponsor. The bill was brought by Republicans furious over the diversity office's suggested use of gender-neutral pronouns for transgender students, as well as to avoid using "Christmas" and religious themes generally at holiday parties.

"Although I do not like the precedent of redirecting funds within a higher education institution's budget, I find the ultimate outcome of the legislation less objectionable and am therefore letting it become law without my endorsement," Haslam said.

Rickey Hall, the head of the university's diversity office, accepted a job this week with the University of Washington.

Gardenhire said his amendment was intended to send UT a "constructive" as opposed to a permanently" destructive" message.

But during Senate floor debate, the Chattanoogan said that "after one year, if UT doesn't straighten up its act, then we come down on them harder."

Senate Democratic Leader Lee Harris of Memphis said Friday that students at both UT-Knoxville and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga marched in protest against the measure.

"Sadly, the message being delivered by the Governor's decision is that we do not value Tennessee's vibrancy and diversity," Harris said.

Contact staff writer Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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