Not Backing Down

Leigh Jones | WORLD News Services | Saturday, February 11, 2012
Not Backing Down

Not Backing Down

(WNS) -- Vanderbilt University administrators do not intend to back away from a nondiscrimination policy that prohibits campus religious organizations from requiring leaders to share their beliefs.

During a meeting held to discuss the policy last night, administrators reiterated the message sent last week by Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos in an email to faculty and students: Membership and leadership in student organizations must be open to everyone.

“We have great trust in our students to select their own leaders of these organizations,” Zeppos wrote in his email.

Under the policy, official organizations on the Nashville, Tenn., campus cannot have any clauses in their constitutions that require leaders to sign a statement of faith. During Tuesday’s meeting, administrators told a crowd of several hundred students that groups would still be allowed to elect the leaders they wanted, suggesting students should not select leaders who disagree with their beliefs.

But administrators did not address what would happen if elected leaders changed their beliefs and no longer represented their group’s positions, which happened at Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi. The fraternity’s members removed one of its leaders last year after he revealed he was gay and actively engaged in a sexual relationship. Complaints about the fraternity’s actions led administrators to announce a revised nondiscrimination policy, which no longer allowed religious groups an exemption for electing leaders.

Christian groups protested the change and lobbied Zeppos to reverse his decision. But the appeals have so far been ignored. All registered student organizations must submit new constitutions that comply with the nondiscrimination policy by mid April. If they don’t, they will not be allowed to continue operating on campus, using school facilities, applying for student fee funding or using the school’s name.

At least three of the four Christian groups now in violation of the policy say they don’t intend to change their constitutions just to stay on campus.

The Fellowship of Christian Athletes is reviewing other options for serving Vanderbilt students, said Nancy Hedrick, the organization’s executive vice president of communications.

“For over 40 years, we have worked with Vanderbilt’s coaches and student-athletes to foster positive character development and guidance for school and life,” she said. “We are particularly grieved that Vanderbilt coaches and student-athletes who have benefited from their participation with FCA, will no longer have that full opportunity.”

The Christian Legal Society also is prepared to move off campus, Carol Swain, the group’s faculty sponsor, said.

“We have made all the accommodations we’re going to make to comply with the university policy,” she said.

Swain, a professor of political science and law, chided the university for singling out religious groups for discrimination. During Tuesday’s meeting, school administrators insisted Vanderbilt had an “all-comers” policy, an approach to student organizations approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in CLS v. Martinez. But a true “all-comers” policy, as defined by the court, must apply universally to all student organizations. Vanderbilt is only applying the policy to religious groups, not fraternities, sororities or other organizations that restrict membership and leadership to a specific group of students.

Vanderbilt, as a private school, is not bound by the Supreme Court’s rulings. But the school’s actions could set a bad precedent, Swain said.

“If Vanderbilt is able to keep this policy and gets away with it, it will encourage other colleges and universities to strip those protections that some of the religious groups have enjoyed historically,” she said.

Swain still hopes school administrators will change their minds about the policy, a resolution InterVarsity Christian Fellowship asked supporters across the country to pray for earlier this week. InterVarsity is working with Vanderbilt alumni and supporters to lobby administrators, a tactic used successfully at other private schools.

If that doesn’t work, the organization’s Graduate Christian Fellowship chapter is prepared to move off campus in April, said Jim Lundgren, director of InterVarsity’s collegiate ministries.

“We just feel that these issues are too important to back down from,” he said.

c. 2012 WORLD News Service. Used with permission.

Publication date: February 11, 2012