Imagine a college chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals, PETA, being led by someone whose favorite food is nice rare steak and who wears fur coats whenever she can. Sounds pretty wacky, doesn’t it?
Well, for Christian groups at Vanderbilt University something like this is a real possibility. So they have decided to fight back in a way we could all learn from.
Back in January, the university put out new regulations aimed at student political and religious groups. The regulations require that “membership in registered student organizations [be] open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions.”
Theoretically, under the regulations, a PETA chapter at Vanderbilt — if one exists — would really have to admit, and possibly be led by, a fur-draped carnivore. I’m guessing that’s not what the Vanderbilt administration had in mind. But I do have an idea whom they are targeting: Christian groups.
You see, last fall, Vanderbilt told the Christian Legal Society that its requirement that officers “lead Bible studies, prayer, and worship” violated university policy because it “implied that these leaders must hold certain religious beliefs.”
Call me cynical, but it’s hard to imagine the university admonishing a campus gay and lesbian group for requiring that its leaders support same-sex marriage. Or can you imagine them telling the local Hillel chapter that it must accommodate Jews for Jesus? I don't think so.
The regulations are such a blatant example of what lawyers call “viewpoint discrimination,” that campus Christian groups are fighting back: a coalition of 11 religious student groups called Vanderbilt Solidarity is reapplying for registered status at Vanderbilt without changing their membership requirements.
Their goal is to make the university publicly explain and justify its blatantly discriminatory policy. They may not prevail in their quest for registered status but even then they will have done us all a service by refocusing the debate on the issue: religious freedom.
Far too often, the debate over religious freedom gets sidetracked: as Chuck told BreakPoint listeners, Rush Limbaugh’s boorish comments were — no pun intended — a godsend to HHS and its supporters. The focus on contraception distracted Americans from the real issue: the use of government power to coerce believers to violate their religious beliefs.
It was a pointless alternative to the questions Americans ought to be asking themselves: if Christians can be forced to pay for contraceptives, sterilization, and abortion-inducing drugs, what else can people of conscience be forced to do?
Taken at face value, Vanderbilt’s policies, as Robert Shibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education has noted, would allow heterosexual students to join the Lambda Association and vote it out of existence. Once again, I kind of doubt that’s what university officials have in mind.
So hats off to Vanderbilt Solidarity. They’ve placed the onus where it belongs: on university officials. And they’ve made it clear what really is at stake in these debates: religious freedom for all.
Chuck Colson's daily BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media and print.
Publication date: April 19, 2012