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Tennessee Law Strips University Diversity Office Funding

NASHVILLE, Tenn. ― A bill to strip funding from the diversity office at Tennessee’s flagship public university became law without Gov. Bill Haslam’s signature on Friday.

Lawmakers had been angered by the University of Tennessee’s diversity office recommendations to use gender-neutral pronouns for transgender students and to avoid religious-themed holiday parties. So they voted to remove about $446,000 in state funds for the office and instead use the money to pay for minority scholarships.

Conservative lawmakers have also been upset at the annual student-run Sex Week at the school, though the diversity office plays no role in that event. The bill bans the school from funding or supporting Sex Week.

“If Sex Week were held on the campus, or even in a classroom of that campus, that would be considered support and illegal under this act,” Rep. Tilman Goins, R-Morristown, said during the floor debate on the bill.

The university in 2013 withdrew more than $11,000 in direct funding for Sex Week after some state lawmakers took issue with the program. But school officials have said they are powerless to stop student fees and donations from being spent on the event, or from banning it outright because of First Amendment protections.

Haslam said in a written statement to lawmakers that he does not like the precedent set by redirecting funds within the budget of a higher education institution. But he stopped short of vetoing the bill.

A House version of the bill would have required the university to produce and distribute “In God We Trust” decals to law enforcement agencies around the state, but the Senate had rejected that provision. Haslam said the final of the bill was “less objectionable” to him.

The funding stripped from the diversity office included the salaries of four people. Earlier this week, the University of Washington announced it had hired Rickey Hall, the head of UT’s diversity office, as the school’s new vice president for minority affairs and diversity.

The Tennessee law is only in effect for one year, but legislators will keep a close eye on the school, Republican Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga said during the debate.

“After one year, if UT doesn’t straighten up its act, then we come down on them harder,” he said.

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