David Fowler: Respecting Both Religion And Safety

Friday, March 8, 2013 - by David Fowler, Executive Director, Family Action Council of Tennessee

Have you ever seen or heard of someone doing something and thought, “Wow, if I ever did that, I would really hate myself.” As I read the news this week about legislation we support, that’s exactly what I thought. Fortunately, I know the story behind the news. And you can, too.

It seemed that the big news this week was a piece of legislation the lobbying arm of our organization supports. It is Senate Bill 1241/House Bill 1150. The bill attempts to ensure that the state does not sanction discrimination by “partnering” with private organizations that deny people their civil rights.

This is not a new concept for the state.

In fact, Tennessee law already says:

No state official, employee or agency shall sponsor or organize a meeting or other activity, the purpose of which is related to state business, . . . in an establishment or facility that does not afford full membership rights and privileges to a person because of sex, race, creed, color, religion, ancestry, national origin or disability.

The law goes on to prohibit the use of state funds in connection with any such meeting and the law also prohibits the state from “entering into commercial contracts with a club that discriminates” on any of the aforesaid bases.

Even though some private organizations are being excluded by these laws from an opportunity other private organizations might have, I am sure liberals and the media would have applauded whoever filed the bill(s) that enacted those laws and the organizations that supported them.

That’s what makes the news this week so confounding. The bill that was decried far and wide actually rests on the same public policy.

The bill in question says that the state will not deputize as a full-fledged police officer an employee of a college if that college, according to the language of the law just quoted, “does not afford full membership rights and privileges” to a student organization that wants to organize around its religious beliefs.

The bill applies to any college, public or private. It simply says what the other law says: You can have the policy that you want, but we, the state, don’t have to cloak your organization with a sign of approval as powerful as allowing you to arrest one of our citizens.

But because one of those colleges is mighty Vanderbilt, the newspapers accused the sponsors and our organization of initiating an “attack on [Vanderbilt’s] police powers.”

Actually, what about accusing Vanderbilt of initiating “an attack” on student religious organizations by telling them that they can’t insist on their leaders holding to that religion’s beliefs?

Another fun one was a commentary that said that if we “cared about any Vanderbilt students,” we “wouldn’t push the bill” because “without Vanderbilt’s police, students will be much less safe.”1

What about a commentary blasting Vanderbilt because it “cared about” telling religious groups they can’t define themselves by their beliefs more than it “cared about” public safety? After all, it’s not like the campus will be unprotected. The Metro police will, by law, step back in, as was the case prior to 1999, to protect students, and Vanderbilt can have as large a campus security team as it wants, the kind most other private colleges in the state have anyway.

But has anyone stopped to think what is really going on here? Religious groups, of necessity, define themselves by their beliefs. But Vanderbilt won’t allow that. It even told a Christian group last year that it couldn’t require its leaders to have a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ.” So if Vanderbilt won’t allow that of a Christian organization, it must not respect religion at all because beliefs define the religion. At least it doesn’t respect any religion that actually believes anything not worth giving up.

Wow! If I thought people thought I:

  • didn’t respect religion, and
  • was willing to put that disrespect ahead of people’s safety

like Vanderbilt seems to think, then I really might hate myself.

1 If I were a Metro Council member I’d be a little concerned that some folks don’t think my police department was as capable of keeping people safe on a college campus as they were before 1999, when Vanderbilt was first authorized to have private police officers. And I’d wonder if Vanderbilt was implying that my police force might not be able to keep people safe in other areas, too.

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