Conservative lawmakers want the chancellor of the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to resign for insufficiently promoting Christianity during the holiday season, as students rally to the administration's defense.
The controversy kicked off Thursday when Rep. John J. Duncan (R-Tenn.) criticized a school memo on Fox News. The memo urged UT employees to avoid religious overtones or symbols in holiday parties, which Duncan called "ridiculous." (The university said it has used similar guidelines for multiple years.)
Several other officials in the state, including Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Knox County Mayor Tim Burchett and state Senators Dolores Gresham and Mike Bell, joined in denouncing the university, with Gresham and Bell calling on UT-Knoxville Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to resign.
U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) chimed in Friday afternoon:
Students, however, are defending the university's leadership, posting support online with the hashtag #StandwithCheek, along " target="_blank" class=" js-entry-link cet-internal-link" data-vars-subunit-name="article_body" data-vars-subunit-type="component" data-vars-position-in-subunit="3">with a video and two petitions on Change.org.
"Students come to college to have an educational experience and engage in learning other peoples points of view both conservative and liberal," both petitions state. "Although some in the legislature may not realize that UT is a place for all students, Chancellor Cheek and Vice-Chancellor [Rickey] Hall have made this a priority."
In the short blog post that started the latest controversy, the university says it has no official policy for holiday celebrations on campus for staff. The post then offers "best practices" suggesting university employees avoid emphasizing a particular religion, not coerce participation and ensure "your holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise." Most importantly, the post said, employees should "celebrate your religious and cultural holidays in ways that are respectful and inclusive of our students, your colleagues, and our university."
The conservative outrage has largely been based on incorrect assumptions. Fox News' Todd Starnes said, wrongly, that the university aimed its guidelines at students. However, they are explicitly for use in the "workplace." Duncan also issued a press release saying that the university "banned" Secret Santa gift exchanges; it did not. It suggested not using that label and instead making it a holiday-neutral gift exchange, but it's not a rule.
And the administration does not monitor holiday events hosted on campus, the university said in a statement Thursday, so if someone doesn't follow the guidelines, they probably wouldn't know.
"As a diverse campus, we do promote ways to be inclusive of all cultures and religions," Cheek said in a statement. "I am disappointed that our efforts to be inclusive have been totally misconstrued."
University officials said it was "ironic" they were being accused of being anti-Christian since their offices are all filled with Christmas decorations, the Knoxville News Sentinel reported.
The controversy is the latest in a string of incidents in recent years where Republicans in the state have demanded more control over what is said on the University of Tennessee's campuses. In 2013 and 2014, for example, lawmakers said the university should censor student-organized "Sex Week" events.
In September, lawmakers said they didn't want the faculty to be allowed to use gender-neutral pronouns. False reports said the university had banned the use of "he" and "she," though the school actually just released a guide about how to use gender-neutral pronouns for trans or genderqueer students.
Gresham responded to a request for comment from HuffPost by forwarding an email from a constituent, who wrote: "Why is there even a department for Diversity and Inclusion? I do not want my tax dollars paying for this nonsense or any of the rest of it. God bless you! Stay the course - there are more of us out here supporting you than you know! The University of Tennessee is a laughing stock."
The University's diversity chief could not immediately be reached for comment.
CLARIFICATION: This article previously suggested that all local officials named in the story as critical of the university memo wanted Jimmy Cheek to resign. Language has been updated to clarify that only some of the critics demanded Cheek leave his post.