Is Vanderbilt University flirting with the suppression of religion? Yes, according to Carol Swain, a professor at Vanderbilt’s Law School.
Vanderbilt says the student organizations cannot require that leaders share the group’s beliefs, goals and values. Carried to its full extent, it means an atheist could lead a Christian group, a man a woman’s group, a Jew a Muslim group or vice versa.
If they remain in non-compliance, the student organizations risk being shut down.
So what’s behind this? Flashback to last fall. An openly gay undergrad at Vanderbilt complained he was kicked out of a Christian fraternity. The university wouldn’t identify the fraternity, but campus newspaper the “Hustler” reported it was Beta Upsilon Chi. As a result, the school took a look at the constitutions of some 300 student groups and found about a dozen, including five religious groups to be in non-compliance with Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination policy. All were placed on provisional status.
Among the groups threatened with shut down is the Christian Legal Society. It ran afoul with this language from its constitution. “Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings.” CLS President Justin Gunter told me, “We come together to do things that Christians do together. Pray, and have Bible studies.”
To that, Rev. Gretchen Person – interim director of the Office of Religious Life at Vanderbilt – responded “Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation/qualification for officers.” Gunter has been negotiating with the university and has taken some language out of the CLS constitution – including the requirement that Student Coordinators “should strive to exemplify Christ-like qualities.” But he says he has to draw the line at the requirement regarding Bible studies, prayer and worship.
He told me, “At the point where they’re saying we can’t have Bible studies and prayer meetings as part of our constitution – if we go beyond that – we’re compromising the very identity of who we are as Christians and the very thing we believe as religious individuals.”
Vanderbilt officials refused to be interviewed, and instead released a statement saying in part “We are committed to making our campus a welcoming environment for all of our students.” In regard to the offending student organizations, officials said they “continue to work with them to achieve compliance.”
CLS’s Gunter says his group’s membership is open to anyone, but leaders have a different requirement. “CLS is a Christian organization”, he told me. “That means to preserve our integrity, we need Christian leaders.”
Carol Swain is CLS’s faculty advisor. She insists the university has gone way beyond political correctness with its actions and demands. “It seems reasonable”, she told me, “to require that leaders share the beliefs of the organizations that they seek to lead.” She sees this as part of a larger problem at liberal-leaning universities across the nation. She says, “I see it as part of a larger attack on religious freedom that’s taking place across the country – particularly when it comes to conservative groups.”
This is familiar territory for the Christian Legal Society. Last year the Supreme Court ruled against a lawsuit it filed against Hastings Law School in California. CLS had argued that Hastings’ “all-comers” policy regarding student groups infringed on its right to religious freedom.
Vanderbilt University Provided this Statement
As a higher education institution, Vanderbilt encourages and supports diversity of thought and opinion among our students, faculty and staff – this is one of the cornerstones of an academic environment. We also recognize that student organizations help enrich the out-of-classroom experience for our campus community and want to be certain that all of our students have an opportunity to participate in the student organizations that interest them. We are committed to making our campus a welcoming environment for all of our students.
Last academic year, an undergraduate made an allegation of discrimination against a student organization. As a result of that allegation, we sought to ensure that the more than 300 student organizations were aware of their need to comply with the university’s longstanding nondiscrimination policy. A dozen or so, including five religious organizations, are not yet in compliance. We made the decision to give the organizations not yet in compliance provisional status, allowing us to continue to work with them to achieve compliance while allowing them to continue to have the same full access to the Vanderbilt campus as they have had in the past.
Media Contact: Beth Fortune (615) 322-NEWS
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- Couple hit with fines for holding a Bible study in their home (hotair.com)
- Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, 130 S. Ct. 2971 (2010)