A university once steeped in Christian principles is now in a battle over religious liberties. Vanderbilt University contends Christian-led groups can’t require leaders to have specific beliefs, claiming the school’s nondiscrimination policy ensures that campus groups are open to all students.
In a room filled to capacity, university administrators held a town hall meeting Jan. 31 to reiterate its commitment to enforcing the policy. The highly emotional three-hour meeting followed a Jan. 20 letter from Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos that clearly stated Vanderbilt's position.
"The university does not seek to limit anyone's freedom to practice his or her religion. We do, however, require all Vanderbilt-registered student organizations to observe our nondiscrimination policy," Zeppos wrote. "That means membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions."
Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCarty, the university’s legal counsel and the dean of the divinity school, made opening remarks and then took questions.
“We want to work with you,” said McCarty to those in attendance. “We want to help. We want to keep you on this campus.”
Assault on Christian Campus Groups
University officials say four organizations are in violation of the current policy -- the Christian Legal Society, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Beta Upsilon Chi and Graduate Student Fellowship.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has a long history on university campuses. The first InterVarsity chapter in the United States began in 1938 at the University of Michigan. Since the organization incorporated in 1941, thousands of students have served in Christian ministry. The policy, however, could mean the end of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s official ministry at Vanderbilt.
"For InterVarsity specifically, because our constitution says that leaders of InterVarsity chapters have to be Christians and practice their Christian walk, we would be sent off campus because of that," explains InterVarsity's Andrew Ginsberg.
Ginsberg says he went into the town hall meeting believing there would a mutual sharing of ideas, but claims it didn’t take long to see the university had already made up its mind.
"It's a really great opportunity to be salt and light. People are watching us. So how can we love students well? How can we love administration well? What does fighting look like in the Kingdom?"
In 2010-2011, InterVarsity had 866 chapters on 557 campuses. The mission of the ministry seeks to see education lead to a lifetime of Christian worship and service, but Ginsberg admits this battle may be beyond his control.
"If it comes to the point of them removing us from campus, well, Jesus doesn't leave the campus," says Ginsberg.
Vanderbilt University was founded in 1873 by the Methodist Church. In 1914, the school severed ties with the Wesleyan tradition. Denominational leaders later established Southern Methodist University in Dallas. Last year, Vanderbilt forced the Christian Legal Society on its campus to remove Bible verses and the words "Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior" from its constitution.
Justin Gunter, a law student at Vanderbilt from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and president of the university’s chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS), has been a vocal opponent of the school’s policy.
“Ultimately the Christian Legal Society is steadfast,” Gunter told Crosswalk.com. “We have a statement of conduct and we are committed to staying at Vanderbilt, but we won’t compromise our beliefs.”
Carol M. Swain, a professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt and author of Be the People, criticized the university saying “It really is a religious freedom issue. I see this private school trying to have it both ways. They want to do what they want while at the same time taking $5 billion each year in federal funds.”
Swain, who is also an advisor for the campus chapter of CLS, says the controversy is beginning to hurt the university financially.
“A donor opted not to give a seven figure contribution,” said Swain. “There are a lot of people who say they will not give to the university until this is resolved, but many conservatives had already stopped giving.”
In 2011 the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF) filed a federal complaint over requiring nursing students to participate in abortions, which Swain says indicates a troubling trend for the university. The complaint was filed on behalf of a fourth-year nursing student attending another university. She sought enrollment in Vanderbilt’s nurse residency program but didn’t apply because of the abortion policy. She says Vanderbilt admission forms require her to promise to participate in abortions.
Inconsistent Policy Enforcement
Gunter notes the school's assault on religious liberties has galvanized the campus. He also points out non-religious campus groups have been targeted.
Gunter and other campus group leaders say university officials were challenged during the town hall meeting concerning the contradiction between its purported “all-comers” policy, which allows anyone to join or lead a group regardless of belief, and the expansive Greek system for example.
Fraternities and sororities typically follow strict gender-segregated membership guidelines. Opponents say if the university truly enforced the policy the Greek system would cease to exist as well as other organizations like gender-segregated intramural sports or students honored for having exemplary grades.
“Such questions strike at the heart of the university’s argument and expose the political reality on campus: Universities are less concerned with ‘all-comers’ than they are with finding a fair-sounding policy hook to exclude orthodox religious viewpoints from campus,” David French wrote in a Feb. 2 National Review commentary. “If Vanderbilt truly was dedicated to ‘all-comers,’ the fraternity and sorority system would cease to exist — as would gender-segregated intramural sports, men’s glee clubs, and any number of other campus organizations the university, students, and alumni deeply value.”
Law Professors Speak Out
Six law professors who are experts on religious liberties have recently released a letter addressed to Chancellor Zeppos and the Vanderbilt University Board of Trust. The statement argues that the university is wrong in its interpretation of non-discrimination statues.
“Our collective opinion that no court decision, administrative regulation, or federal or state statute requires Vanderbilt to prohibit religious student groups from requiring their leaders to share the groups’ religious groups,” the statement said.
According to administrators, their nondiscriminatory policy ensures that campus groups are open to all students.
But a number of alumni and religious liberty legal experts disagree.
Daniel M. Gray, a Washington, D.C. attorney and Vanderbilt 1978 graduate, says the Christian campus groups have several Supreme Court opinions to support their positions.
“Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in one opinion – the right to associate also applies to the right not to associate,” said Gray. “In the same way you can pick who you want in your organization, you can also exclude who you don’t want in your organization.”
Gray told Crosswalk.com that 84 percent of Vanderbilt undergraduates voted for Ronald Reagan in 1984 and that he has seen a steady decline on the part of the university to embrace its conservative heritage.
“This is a deliberate attempt by the left to fundamentally change a prestigious university that has been long known for its conservative values,” said Gray. “This is a political battle. The administration figured no one would challenge their policy. At Vanderbilt and many other higher education institutions there is an inherent arrogance of political correctness.”
Many of the students are working with concerned alumni to challenge the university's policy. In spite of the hardship, Gunter says he is getting real-life experience from a difficult situation.
“I wake up in the morning and get to apply what I’m learning through this experience,” said Gunter. “It has been so inspiring -- so many of the students have gotten behind this to oppose what is happening. We’ve had so many opportunities to share the gospel on campus because of this. It is not just about a bunch of rules, but how someone’s life can be transformed and how you stand up under pressure.”
Russ Jones is a 20-year award winning journalist and correspondent. He is co-publisher of various Christian news sites such as ChristianPress.com, OxfordFamily.com and a media consultant. He is also a freelance correspondent for the American Family Radio Network, Crosswalk.com and various Christian TV networks. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and St. Paul School of Theology. Russ enjoys keeping his mind engaged in the academic arena teaching subjects like Introduction to World Religions, Introduction to Mass Communication, Ethics and Biblical Literature. Russ is married to Jackie and together they have four children. He may be reached at [email protected].
Publication date: February 15, 2012