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The Battle of Vanderbilt: Is Tennessee’s Republican Governor Turning His Back on Religious Liberty?



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On Tuesday I reported that the Tennessee legislature had overwhelmingly voted to protect religious liberty at Vanderbilt University. Vanderbilt, a non-religious private school and recipient of massive amounts of state and federal taxpayer dollars, had implemented a policy that required religious student groups to open themselves to non-religious leadership. In response, the legislature passed a bill that did two things: (1) protected religious liberty at all public universities in the state to prevent any policies similar to Vanderbilt’s, and (2) provided similar protections to students at non-religious colleges that were significant recipients of state funds (but with a one-year sunset provision).

But now it appears that Tennessee governor Bill Haslam will use his first veto as governor to throw thousands of Christian students under the bus and hand a state-funded secular, leftist institution a critical public-policy and public-relations victory. And why is he doing this? In the name of “limited government.”  Here is the core of his statement:

Although I disagree with Vanderbilt’s policy, as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution.

But this makes no sense in context.  As stated above, Vanderbilt is a massive consumer of taxpayer funds. Its HHS grants alone add up to over $300 million per year, and that’s simply one category of government spending. When you add all the federal, state, and local funding together, the average Vanderbilt student will see as much as $2 billion in taxpayer funds pass through Vanderbilt’s accounts during the course of his college career. Walk through Vanderbilt’s sprawling campus, and you’ll see building after building, academic program after academic program, that was made possible in part through taxpayer money.

#more#”Limited government” would yank that funding rather than strip cost-free religious liberty protections from Tennessee students. Governor Haslam’s potential veto doesn’t represent small-government conservatism; it treats Tennessee taxpayers as an ATM for a university system that sneers at their core values and suppresses the religious liberty of their own kids — kids it recruited to campus with promises of academic freedom and vibrant religious life. 

Some have misguidedly compared the Tennessee legislature’s religious-liberty protections with Obama’s intrusive HHS guidelines. Yet the two policies are dramatically different: The HHS guidelines infringe upon religious-liberty rights specifically protected by the First Amendment, while the Tennessee legislature exempts religious universities and protects religious rights. The HHS guidelines apply even if the private employer receives no state funding; the Tennessee legislature applied its policy only to those institutions receiving significant taxpayer support (more than $24 million per year). Finally, there is nothing conservative about a wholly invented right to free contraceptives, while religious liberty, free speech, and the marketplace of ideas implicate and advance core conservative values.

As I type this post, the governor has not yet vetoed the bill, so there is still hope. But if he does not listen to the pleas of his fellow Tennesseans and the overwhelming majority of his own legislature, he will — in the name of “limited government” — give a blank check to the radical university Left. That’s not conservatism; it’s exploitation.



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