Liberal Conservatives? Conservative Liberals?

Watching politicians argue policy can sometimes be amusing, particularly when liberals use conservatives’ arguments against them and vice versa. There are times when you think the liberal speaking on the House or Senate floor is the conservative. The bill dealing with the religious discrimination taking place at Vanderbilt University is a prime example. It has been fascinating to observe.

(The following commentary was written prior to the Governor’s announcement two days ago that he planned to veto the bill, but the thoughts remain germane.)

The bill in question states that public colleges cannot deny official recognition to student religious groups because those groups require their members or officers to hold to that religion’s beliefs. The bill, for only the next 13 months, also applied to Vanderbilt. But to Vanderbilt the option was also given that it could require a religious student organization to accept any interested student so long as it applied that requirement to all student organizations, including fraternities and sororities.

Many conservatives were uncomfortable with voting on a bill that would tell a private college how to handle the recognition of student organizations. Limiting government regulation of the private sector is a strong conservative value. The bill did present some tough issues, not easily weighed.

Conservatives generally like to allow private businesses to run their affairs with as little government regulation and interference as possible. And Vanderbilt is a private business. The only difference between Vanderbilt and the person who owns a motel or factory is the type of business. Vanderbilt is in the education business. But the type of business involved is a distinction without a difference.

Liberals on the other hand generally have no problem with telling private businesses what to do; in fact, some even want to go so far as to determine how much profit is enough. Another example is that liberals like to tell private businesses who they can and cannot hire. And they don’t mind trampling over a business owner’s religious beliefs when, for example, they want to make a business owner extend special rights to homosexuals or to cross-dressers.

So, liberals argued against the bill in question because it was telling a private business what to do. Who Vanderbilt’s student organizations should be allowed to associate with, they said, was a private sector decision that should be left up to Vanderbilt’s management. So liberals were now making to conservatives the arguments conservatives would have been making in response to bills liberals typically bring.

So what is the better argument? Were liberals right on this one and the conservatives wrong?  Were conservatives doing the “liberal thing,” and were liberals doing the “conservative thing”?

Well, here’s the deal from my point of view. Conservatives would normally agree with the arguments the liberals were making. But in this case there’s a catch.

First, we’re dealing with an organization that receives state and federal tax dollars. In that sense, Vanderbilt is not altogether private as are most all the state’s other private colleges. Strings come with government money. That’s why, in my opinion, private businesses should not take government tax money (and perhaps the state should consider the same with federal tax money).

Second, we’re dealing with religious liberty, a very fundamental value in America.  

Third, we don’t let all kinds of private businesses discriminate against religion because of its fundamental value to our society. In this case, it would seem to be no different. So, to the liberals I’d say, “It’s a bit late in the day to argue against government interference with the private sector.” If that’s what they want to say, then they need to stand up and argue for repeal of the civil rights laws, too.

Fourth, conservatives, in an attempt to be consistent with their “limited government philosophy,” limited the provisions of the bill dealing with Vanderbilt to the next 13 months, until June 30th of next year. This itself is an indication that the conservative legislators did not really want to tell private businesses, in this case, Vanderbilt, what to do. But the legislature, which is now gone until next January, was also out of time to try to work with Vanderbilt and its alumni. The provisions relative to Vanderbilt were seen more as an attempt to preserve the status quo for a limited time than an ongoing regulation of business like with our civil rights laws. So conservatives were doing about everything they could to not go down this road of additional government regulation.

Fifth, Vanderbilt’s action implicates a federal law and whether Vanderbilt’s use of that federal law is correct is questionable. But until recent weeks, how Vanderbilt has interpreted federal law was not clear. Now in the last week or so the issue of how federal law was being used had begun to catch the eye of several congressmen.  But, again, there is no time for members of Congress to examine how their own laws were being used and interpreted unless they were given time to act, and Congress was dependent on the state legislature to give them that time.

So, now the ball is in Vanderbilt’s court. They obfuscated, even completely misrepresenting the efforts of students and alumni to get the attention of Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust. And then when twenty members of the legislature wrote and ask them to re-look at their policy and the law, the word filtered back that the Administration and Board of Trust thought it was a joke.

Now I guess we’ll see if Vanderbilt’s administration actually takes this issue seriously and tries to work with the legislature, members of Congress, and their alumni to resolve this issue. It can be done as evidenced by the way other universities such as Texas, Ohio State, and Florida have done.