NASHVILLE — Lawmakers' attempts to zero out the budget for the state flagship university's Office for Diversity and Inclusion won additional approval Tuesday and appear to be headed to the state Senate floor.
Sen. Todd Gardenhire's bill would divert all state money from the University of Tennessee diversity office's budget to minority scholarships for engineering students. It also would bar the university from using state money to support the university's annual Sex Week programming, which is not part of the diversity office's programs, or gender-neutral pronouns.
Republican lawmakers, including Gardenhire of Chattanooga, have threatened to yank money from the Knoxville-based diversity office for months after two controversial posts on the office website that promoted the use of gender-neutral pronouns and "inclusive holiday celebrations." University officials eventually removed both posts, but lawmakers have continued to question UT's diversity funding throughout the legislative session.
Yet not all GOP legislators are in agreement.
"If we do not agree with some of the decisions made on the ground at various campuses, we have it in our ability to influence the people on the board," said GOP Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville, who voted against the bill as it passed the state Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee, 9-2. "I think the mechanism we are choosing to follow is incorrect," calling it micromanagement of budgets.
Many University of Tennessee students have spoken out against the legislature's efforts to cut almost $450,000 and potentially leave four staffers jobless, casting the legislation as an attack on campus diversity. As the Senate panel voted, hundreds of students in Knoxville walked out of class as part of a previously scheduled protest on the issue but university officials refused to wade in.
“It is speculative for the university to comment about pending legislation,” UT spokeswoman Karen Simsen said in a statement Tuesday.
Gardenhire told the finance committee that his bill was in direct response to Sex Week and the diversity office's suggestions about sensitivity to lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender issues as well as non-Christians on campus.
The Office for Diversity and Inclusion does not coordinate Sex Week. A separate group called Sexual Empowerment and Awareness at Tennessee organizes it and has raised money privately since 2013 to put it on, according to the group's website.
"You are free to do whatever you want to do — say and do and act however you want to," Gardenhire said, relating to the committee a visit that he and GOP Rep. Mike Carter of Chattanooga took to UT last year to visit about 15 students. "But we as elected representatives of the people of the state, we feel free to do what we think is necessary to stop this foolishness."
The state House already passed its version of Gardenhire's bill Monday, but an amendment inserted to divert about $100,000 of the diversity office budget to a program that would print "In God We Trust" decals for law-enforcement vehicles may hit a snag in the state Senate. Both chambers would have to agree on one version of the bill before sending it to the governor.
The legislation has been one of at least four bills that the Tennessee General Assembly has addressed that mix politics, religion and sometimes LGBT issues:
• Bible bill. Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed a bill Thursday that would have made the Bible the official state book. Legislators are expected to vote Wednesday on overriding the veto, which can be accomplished with a simple majority.
• Counselors bill. Haslam is still trying to decide whether to sign a bill that would give counselors authority to deny their mental-health services to people if serving them would violate their "sincerely held principles."
• Transgender bathroom bill. GOP Rep. Susan Lynn of Mount Juliet, Tenn., withdrew a controversial bill Monday that would require students in public schools and universities to use the restroom that corresponds with their gender at birth. A similar bill became law earlier this year in North Carolina and the state is facing boycotts because of it.
She plans to re-introduce the bill next year after studying the issue further, she said.