The Spectacle Blog

Vanderbilt Drops the Ball on Religious Freedom - UPDATED: Vanderbilt Replies

By on 1.27.12 | 1:29PM

Religious groups at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee are banned from making leadership decisions based on religion, thanks to rules set forward by officials enforcing its "nondiscrimination policy." According to the administration, "membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions."

That "plurality" became a top priority over religious freedom when a gay student claimed he had been "kicked out" of a Christian fraternity. In response, the university examined the constitutions of some 300 groups and found that several weren't in compliance with Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy.

The groups included the Christian Legal Society, which violates the policy by expecting its officers to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings.

When John Roberts of Fox News reached out to the university for comment, they only issued the pat statement: "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."

Unless you're Christian, of course.

The rule has been criticized by 23 members of Congress, the national Christian Legal Society, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nashville, and others.

The nondiscrimination policy is a direct contradiction to the school's own words when it insists that students "are entitled to exercise the rights of citizens."

George Will, when writing about the issue last fall, noted that the Court has upheld the ability of groups to discriminate when defining themselves:

In wiser moments, the court has held that "this freedom to gather in association . . . necessarily presupposes the freedom to identify the people who constitute the association and to limit the association to those people only." In 1984, William Brennan, the court's leading liberal of the last half-century, said:

"There can be no clearer example of an intrusion into the internal structure or affairs of an association than a regulation that forces the group to accept members it does not desire. Such a regulation may impair the ability of the original members to express only those views that brought them together. Freedom of association therefore plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate."

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) had a number of pointed questions about how this rule would work in practice, revealing how shortsighted it is:

  • If one of the leaders of Vanderbilt's Muslim Students Association were to convert to Christianity, is the group required to maintain that person in his or her leadership role despite the fact that he or she is no longer Muslim?
  • Vanderbilt informed the Christian Legal Society that its requirement that student leaders "lead Bible studies, prayer, and worship" was against the policy because it implied that these leaders must hold certain religious beliefs. How do you suggest religious groups at Vanderbilt fulfill their purposes without leaders who can accomplish such core tasks of religious leadership?
  • While this dispute was originally confined to religious organizations, your statement of January 20 states that all student organizations must accept any student as a member or a leader. If a group of straight students-the majority at Vanderbilt-were to join the Vanderbilt Lambda Association, vote themselves into office, and disband the group or alter the group's mission, what recourse would LGBT members of the Lambda Association have?
  • If a member of the College Republicans joins the College Democrats to discover their plans for political activism and report those plans back to the College Republicans in order to thwart them, do the College Democrats have any way to stop him or her?
  • Under this policy, must an ideological student journal like Vanderbilt's Orbis accept editors or publish columnists who disagree with, mock, or denigrate its progressive political views?
  • Many groups in the Occupy movement choose to make decisions by consensus. How could a Vanderbilt-based Occupy group operate if a small group of students joined specifically to prevent the group from acting in any way by constantly preventing a consensus from forming?
  • If a student were to join an environmentalist group like Vanderbilt SPEAR and then use his membership in that group to increase his or her credibility when publicly criticizing the group's positions in the Nashville or Vanderbilt newspapers, what could the group do to prevent this?

It is unlikely any response will be forthcoming: FIRE has written to officials at the school before, and have received no response. Even more likely, these are questions the officials have never even considered, and will have a hard time answering.

Updated:

A spokesperson from Vanderbilt returned my call inquiring about the policy with the following email:

Per your phone call, here is a link to Vanderbilt University's longstanding nondiscrimination policy. It is not a new policy - http://hr.vanderbilt.edu/policies/HR-001.php

Also, here is a link to a message from our chancellor - http://news.vanderbilt.edu/2012/01/chancellor-message-jan-20/.

This is all I can provide at this time.

I replied that this appears to be the first time the school has applied this policy in this way. I don't think she'll be responding, but I can't help but note that a university that touts its openness and free inquiry refuses to answer press inquiries. Not exactly the approach you take when you want to counter the message that you're unfriendly to the First Amendment.

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