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By now, almost everyone has heard or read that Vanderbilt University adopted an “all comers” policy for its student groups that has the effect of forcing some religious groups to choose between the benefits that attend recognition (access to university facilities and funding) and fidelity to their mission.

The Tennessee state legislature—which provides a non-negligble amount of financial support for the University— struck back , demnding that Vanderbilt either rescind its all-comers policy or apply it even-handedly to all groups (including those most sacrosanct of student organizations, fraternities and sororities).

But Tennessee’s governor Bill Haslam has announced that he will veto this bill.

“It is counter-intuitive to make campus organizations open their membership and leadership positions to anyone and everyone, even when potential members philosophically disagree with the core values and beliefs of the organization,” Haslam said in a prepared 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.”

David French isn’t buying Haslam’s argument:
[T]his 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.

There are two visions of limited government at work here.  On the one hand, Haslam seems to argue that a government that provides financial support for “civil society” ought to leave those institutions free to determine for themselves how they’re going to operate, even if (on occasion) we don’t much like the decisions they make.  Those who, for example, think that government contractors ought to be free to engage in mission-sensitive hiring (to do what Vanderbilt desnies to its student organizations) might have some sympathy with the Governor’s position.  (To be sure, there’s no causal connection between the Goernor’s deference to the autonomy of private universities and any successor’s behavior.  I can imagine someone else coming along and attaching all sorts of strings to the money.)

French seems to think that the people of Tennessee have a right to attach strings to the money they give private institutions.  Of course, they do.  In this instance, the strings would seem to favor religious liberty.  (Indeed, one could argue that only such strings would be legitimate: it would be inconsistent to insist upon a sort of associational liberty to deny someone else the same associational liberty.)  But I fear that it’s too much to expect that every legislature would only use its power for such a good purpose.

It’s tempting to offer a more or less bright libertarian line here: government should simply get out of the business of funding “good works” like the education Vanderbit provides.  But I fear that we’re going to have to continue to wrestle in the shadows with the difficult distinctions that Haslam and French are trying to make.  The principles are available, but simple formulas like “limited government” won’t get you very far.

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