Vanderbilt University: Refusal to Approve Constitutions of Student Groups that Require Leaders to Share Beliefs

Category: Freedom of Conscience, Religious Liberty
Schools: Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) was told in April 2011 that recognition of its constitution would be “deferred,” and Vanderbilt claimed that the group’s Statement of Faith violated university policies prohibiting organizations from selecting leaders based on religious belief. Vanderbilt even told CLS that it was not allowed to expect its leaders “to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship.” Despite FIRE’s September 2011 letter to Vanderbilt and the ensuing uproar in the local and national media and on campus, in January 2012 Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos persisted in the discriminatory treatment of belief-based student organizations, stating that membership must be open to everyone, even those who do not share the group’s beliefs and seek to undermine it. By prohibiting groups from maintaining their identities, Vanderbilt is discriminating against political and religious organizations and violating its promises to its students. In spring 2012, Vanderbilt Catholic refused to affiliate with the university under the new policy and 11 other organizations flouted the policy in solidarity when they applied for recognition as belief-based groups.

  • Vid: “Harvard of the South,” Vanderbilt, as Repressive as Harvard of the North

    August 24, 2012

    Here’s a new video from ReasonTV alum (and maker of our Nanny of the Month vids) Ted Balaker and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Vanderbilt University, the self-proclaimed Harvard of the South, is meddling with freedom of association in a way that even the most hard-core aficianado of political correctness would find repugnant:    From the writeup of the doc at YouTube: Religious and political groups in the United States have traditionally been free to choose their leaders and members without interference from authorities. That’s no longer true at Vanderbilt University, where the school banned belief-based groups from making belief-based decisions about […]

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  • Country Star Blasts Vanderbilt For Stifling Faith

    August 22, 2012

    Country music star Larry Gatlin, who lives across the street from Vanderbilt University in Nashville, charges the school has chosen the wrong path in its effort to control the membership and leadership of student organizations. “People in power over there are really trying to impose their religion, their worldview,” he said in a new documentary about the dispute by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. FIRE, which has battled with Vanderbilt over the issue, created the video to warn that other universities likely will follow the Nashville school’s lead.University officials have adopted an “all-comers” policy for their campus, […]

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  • Vanderbilt exiles evangelical Christians, Catholics

    August 20, 2012

    “You may hear the argument that Vanderbilt is discriminating against religious groups. I want to assure you that in my opinion, we are not.” That’s what Vanderbilt University provost Richard McCarty told a “town hall” meeting of Vanderbilt students during the one event in which Vanderbilt deigned to answer students’ questions after passing a new “nondiscrimination” policy. We’re talking about a policy so absurd that Vanderbilt itself says that religious student groups can no longer even require that their leaders conduct Bible studies because it implies that they have to believe in the Bible. Admittedly, it’s hard to believe that […]

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  • Religion on campus: Status of religious student groups is challenged by court ruling

    July 13, 2012

    The atmosphere in the crowded Vanderbilt University classroom was heated. Three men in suits sat at the front of the room one Tuesday night in January taking the brunt of student complaints about a nondiscrimination policy for campus clubs. The policy wasn’t new, the men said, but the school wanted to fix some “loopholes” that had been in effect for years that gave students control over who could run their clubs. The school wanted any student to be able to lead or be a part of any campus club. The problem is, many religious clubs on campus adhere to strict […]

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  • Sending Catholics Running for Cover

    May 4, 2012

    Religion and academia have never had an easy relationship.  American conservatives often think of college professors as wildly left-wing, politically agitating atheists bent on undermining American, Western, and otherwise Judeo-Christian values.  Right wing radio shock jocks frequently bemoan the university as a hotbed of liberal propaganda, spinning it as a battleground in the “war on religion” that the left is supposedly waging.  These sorts of jeremiads against liberal fascism and its beef with belief have tended to huddle within the bastion of conservative rhetoric, generating little interest beyond those who already agree with it.  Recently, however, the issue of religious […]

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  • TN Legislature Seeks to Overturn Bizarre Vanderbilt Rule

    May 3, 2012

    Lawmakers in Tennessee have approved a bill that would effectively rescind Vanderbilt University’s controversial policy requiring student groups to have completely open membership admittance and freedom to run for office within that group. The bill comes after Vanderbilt University took its policy to the extreme by informing a Christian studentgroup that its official recognition was to be revoked because it required its members to have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ. “It just shows how radical the Vanderbilt administration has become in enforcing a policy that is nonsense,” said Kim Colby, senior counsel for the Christian Legal Society’s Center for […]

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  • Schools work to balance gay, religious rights

    February 22, 2012

    Dozens of colleges have scrutinized how on-campus Christian groups operate after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling allowed a law school to deny funding to a Christian group that would not admit gays. The 2010 ruling touched on gay and religious rights on campus, and the tension is now at the center of a handful of disputes at colleges. A chapter of the Christian group InterVarsity at the University of Buffalo was temporarily suspended. The student government is evaluating its groups after a treasurer, who is gay, felt pressured to step down. The University of North Carolina is reviewing its student […]

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  • Vandy’s advice to clubs ‘makes no sense’

    February 3, 2012

    by Bob Kellogg and Fred Jackson One News Now   Vanderbilt University is continuing to defend its policy of forcing Christian clubs on campus to allow students who don’t agree with Christian teachings to run for leadership positions in those organizations (see earlier story). The university held a campus meeting last night to hear varying points of view surrounding the school’s requirement that Christian student organizations comply with its non-discrimination policy. The Christian groups have argued that the policy violates their right to be led by fellow believers who support their beliefs and principles, including sexual abstinence before marriage. Dr. […]

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  • OK to discriminate against Christians, says law, Vandy

    December 1, 2011

    Four Christian groups at Vanderbilt University are “under a serious threat” from the legal and cultural climates and may soon be booted from the campus because of a new university policy that says they must accept anyone and everyone into their organizations. Vanderbilt adopted the policy after an on-campus Christian group expelled a member because of his homosexual relations (see earlier story). Robert Sibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) warns that an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court case could do further damage “by specifically setting out the principle that religious groups can be discriminated against when it comes to […]

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  • Private Universities and the Conflict Between Mission and Speech

    July 15, 2013

    Madeline Gootman is a FIRE summer intern. When private universities send out their shiny pamphlets to high school seniors, they highlight their commitment to all things politically correct and otherwise acceptable in academia. However, these commitments to civility, respect, and social comfort are often at odds with the broad promises of free speech that universities make to their incoming students. Unfortunately for students, too many private universities want to have it both ways, promising students the right to free speech and then violating that right when someone’s speech proves too unpopular or controversial. Vanderbilt University’s packet for recently admitted students […]

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  • Student Column Urges Vanderbilt to Reconsider Stance on Belief-Based Groups

    August 23, 2012

    “Considering the damage it has done to the diversity of student organizations on campus, the policy deserves continued debate and Vanderbilt should reconsider its stance on the issue.” That’s what Vanderbilt University junior and 2011 FIRE intern Kenny Tan has to say about his school’s controversial “all-comers” policy, implemented during the 2011–2012 school year and in full effect as students head back to campus this week. Yesterday, Kenny penned an article for The Vanderbilt Hustler explaining the policy for new students, who may not be familiar with the debate.  Vandy’s all-comers policy requires that all registered student groups accept any […]

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  • FIRE’s New Video Featured in ‘Daily Caller’

    August 20, 2012

    Fresh off the release of our new short documentary, “Exiled from Vanderbilt: How Colleges Are Driving Religious Groups Off Campus,” FIRE’s Robert Shibley has written a new column for The Daily Caller exploring the Vanderbilt case and the video’s message. Visit The Daily Caller to learn more and be sure to check out “Exiled from Vanderbilt”!

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  • Exiled from Vanderbilt: How Colleges are Driving Religious Groups off Campus

    August 20, 2012

    Featuring Larry Gatlin and Jonathan Rauch! Religious and political groups in the United States have traditionally been free to choose their leaders and members without interference from authorities. That’s no longer true at Vanderbilt University, where the school banned belief-based groups from making belief-based decisions about their members and leaders and drove 13 religious student groups off of campus. In this video, FIRE talks to Vanderbilt students and faculty about how this decision is affecting them. Country music legend Larry Gatlin and author and scholar Jonathan Rauch also explain why Vanderbilt has done both its students and the idea of […]

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  • New FIRE Video: How Religious Groups Were ‘Exiled from Vanderbilt,’ Featuring Larry Gatlin and Jonathan Rauch

    August 20, 2012

    Religious and political groups in the United States have traditionally been free to choose their leaders and members without interference from authorities. That’s no longer true at Vanderbilt University, where the school banned belief-based groups from making belief-based decisions about their members and leaders and drove 13 religious student groups off of campus. In “Exiled from Vanderbilt: How Colleges are Driving Religious Groups Off Campus,” FIRE talks to Vanderbilt students and faculty about how this decision is affecting them. Country music legend Larry Gatlin and author and scholar Jonathan Rauch also explain why Vanderbilt has done both its students and the idea […]

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  • Belief-Based Student Groups Score a Win at SUNY – Buffalo

    August 15, 2012

    For some time now, Vanderbilt University has been ground zero in the battle to decide whether belief-based student groups on college campuses will be allowed to make membership and leadership decisions that are influenced by their core beliefs. In the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, this has been a thorny legal issue, one that has come to a head at Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt has taken a firm stance against student groups’ belief-based decisionmaking, enacting an extreme policy that even forbids religious groups from requiring their leaders to lead Bible studies, prayer, or worship. […]

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  • Fight for Religious Liberty Continues

    May 23, 2012

    In what can serve as an excellent lesson for campus officials who target the associational rights of their students, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) has reversed its ruling against a campus religious group and will now allow the club to operate at UNCG. Citizen Link reports that the school reversed its denial of recognition to the Make Up Your Own Mind club after the Alliance Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against the school for refusing to accept the club’s religious status and belief-based membership requirements. The decision comes in light of the ongoing debate at Vanderbilt University […]

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  • Vanderbilt Reaps What it Sows: Tennessee Legislature Passes Bill Banning ‘All Comers’ Policy

    May 2, 2012

    Vanderbilt’s assault on religious liberty on campus looks like it’s headed for a crushing, if utterly predictable, defeat. Last night, the Tennessee legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill that would ban Tennessee’s public universities as well as any private university that gets more than $24 million in funding a year (there’s only one: Vanderbilt!) from telling religious student groups that they can’t have belief-based requirements for membership or leadership. Interestingly, the legislature did give Vanderbilt an out: If it’s willing to apply an “all comers” policy to fraternities, sororities, and all other groups as well, it can keep its “all comers” […]

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  • Vanderbilt Update: Board of Trust Urged to Reverse Discriminatory Policy

    April 19, 2012

    Vanderbilt University’s Board of Trust is meeting late this week in the context of a hailstorm of local and national criticism of Vanderbilt’s new, discriminatory policy. The new policy, which prohibits belief-based student organizations from requiring that their leaders share the group’s beliefs, has sent the organization Vanderbilt Catholic off campus (the organization may not use Vanderbilt’s name anymore) and led 11 student organizations to defy the ban. FIRE has been fighting for religious liberty at Vanderbilt since last September, and in October, 23 members of Congress intervened to no avail.  State legislators in Tennessee are now working to ban […]

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  • 11 More Vanderbilt Student Groups Revolt over New Discriminatory Policy

    April 11, 2012

    After Vanderbilt University issued a new, discriminatory policy that prevents religious student groups from maintaining belief-based membership and leadership requirements, 11 Vanderbilt student organizations have refused to accept second-class status at the university because of their beliefs. Organized together as Vanderbilt Solidarity, these organizations have applied for recognition as belief-based groups. Their decision follows the choice of the student group Vanderbilt Catholic to accept self-exile by no longer officially registering with Vanderbilt rather than lose its unique identity.  Vanderbilt has refused to permit belief-based groups to maintain their missions despite significant national outrage, including intervention by FIRE and many others. […]

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  • ‘Huffington Post’: Catholic Group Withdraws from Vanderbilt over New Policy

    April 9, 2012

    FIRE is not alone in noting that the student organization Vanderbilt Catholic has withdrawn from Vanderbilt University due to Vanderbilt University’s infringement on student groups’ freedom of association. Writing for The Huffington Post, Tyler Kingkade points out that under Vanderbilt’s new non-discrimination policy, a faith-based organization like Vanderbilt Catholic can no longer require that leaders of the group share its core beliefs and values. This fundamental denial of students’ right to associate around shared beliefs has forced Vanderbilt Catholic (and possibly other groups in the near future) to disaffiliate with the school and lose official student organization status, which means […]

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  • Vanderbilt University’s Non-Discrimination Policy Causes Catholic Student Group To Leave Campus

    April 2, 2012

    by Tyler Kingkade The Huffington Post   Vanderbilt University’s Catholic student group is disaffiliating with the school due to a clash with the college’s non-discrimination policy. Vandy Catholic, a group with 500 members, disagrees that they must permit non-Catholic students to serve in leadership positions. While Vandy Catholic isn’t forced to give non-Catholic students leadership positions within the group, they aren’t permitted to disqualify somebody because of their differing beliefs either. “Our policy requires that all students are presumed to be eligible for membership in registered student organizations and that all organization members in good standing are eligible to compete for leadership […]

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  • Vanderbilt Drives Out the Catholics–Who’s Next?

    March 29, 2012

    When Vanderbilt University introduced its new “nondiscrimination policy” for registered student organizations back in January of this year, the Vandy administration was met with an irate group of students from religious student organizations that would be negatively affected by the new rule. As these students—along with many other organizations and individuals, including the Christian Legal Society, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nashville, the American Center for Law and Justice, more than half a dozen law professors, and 23 members of the U.S. Congress—pointed out at the time, the policy essentially dictates that religious and political organizations cannot determine their leadership […]

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  • Law Professor Explores Freedom of Association Controversy at Vanderbilt

    March 20, 2012

    In an article for the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse last week, University of St. Thomas law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen addresses Vanderbilt University’s controversial decision to institute an “all-comers” policy for student organizations on campus. As Paulsen explains, the policy forbids students groups from “impos[ing] faith-based or belief-based requirements for membership or leadership.” In his piece, Paulsen explores what he calls the “irony” of the constitutional principles and court decisions relating to freedom of expressive association, noting that the same freedom that protects the rights of individuals to form organizations based on shared beliefs also guards Vanderbilt’s ability as a […]

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  • All-Comers Supporters: Don’t Worry, Bad Things will ‘Never Happen’!

    February 23, 2012

    If tomorrow the laws against insider trading were revoked in their entirety, would you expect more insider trading to take place, or about the same amount? If you think more would result, congratulations; you apply logic the way most people do. But if you think there would be no effect, I think I might have found someone who agrees with you. In a recent Associated Press article about the trend of universities considering the adoption of “all-comers” policies banning belief-based student groups from making belief-based choices about their membership or leadership, I was quoted warning of some of the potential […]

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  • Help FIRE Defend Liberty on Campus

    February 23, 2012

    This year is shaping up to be an important one for campus liberty. In the past two months alone, we celebrated the inclusion of the University of Mississippi on our exclusive list of “green light” schools, won an important legal victory in Barnes v. Zaccari, and secured a quick resolution to an outrageous case at Syracuse University. Each of these victories provides testament to our continued commitment to defending the expressive rights of students and faculty on campus. And, of course, today we announced a lawsuit aimed at removing an unconstitutional speech code at the University of Cincinnati. But a […]

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  • FIRE in ‘National Review Online’ on Impact of Discriminatory ‘All-Comers’ Policy at Vanderbilt

    February 6, 2012

    This morning in National Review Online, FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley explores the negative impact of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez for students at Vanderbilt and nationwide. Focusing on Vanderbilt University’s recent invocation of the case to justify its decision to ban belief-based student groups from requiring that group leaders actually share the group’s stated values, Robert writes: The complications of adopting ["all-comers"] policies have delayed their adoption by many public universities. Ohio even passed a law against such policies at its state schools. Yet the Supreme Court’s seeming endorsement inspired Vanderbilt to […]

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  • After Vandy’s Ill-Advised Choice, Revisiting ‘CLS v. Martinez’ Warning

    February 1, 2012

    Last night, Vanderbilt University held a ”town hall”discussion of its decision to require registered student groups to accept all students in leadership positions, barring belief-based student groups from requiring that leaders actually agree with the group’s stated mission. According to The Tennessean, more than 200 students participated, and FIRE has received reports from students that the discussion, planned for 90 minutes, ran for over three hours.   Vanderbilt student publication InsideVandy.com reported that tensions were extraordinarily high:  This pressure reached its breaking point when starting quarterback for the Vanderbilt Commodores Jordan Rodgers spoke out on behalf of the Fellowship for Christian Athletes, a group currently […]

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  • Debate Over Religious Freedom Comes to a Head at Vanderbilt

    January 31, 2012

    This evening, Vanderbilt University will hold a town hall “discussion” about its new nondiscrimination policy that prevents belief-based student groups from making belief-based decisions about their leadership. Vanderbilt effectively is discriminating against political and religious groups that seek to promote a common message. Vanderbilt has told students that their organizations are engaging in prohibited discrimination if they require that leaders of the Vanderbilt College Democrats be Democrats, that Christian groups be Christian, that Muslim groups be Muslim, that single-sex singing groups maintain their identity, or that political publications exclude students who do not share their views. This is huge news […]

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  • FIRE’s Open Letter to Vanderbilt Regarding Religious and Political Organizations

    January 27, 2012

    In an open letter today, FIRE asks Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos important questions about how Vanderbilt will handle the ramifications of its recent decision to ban political and religious student groups on campus from making leadership decisions based on their core beliefs. FIRE points out that Vanderbilt must be willing to explain whether the university will, for example, force a Muslim group whose leader converts to Christianity to retain that person as a leader, or whether politically oriented student newspapers will now be forced to accept columnists who denigrate the newspaper’s own beliefs.  The full text of the letter […]

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  • George Will Castigates Vanderbilt for Discrimination Against Belief-Based Student Groups

    November 3, 2011

    Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist George Will, writing in The Washington Post, takes Vanderbilt University to task for its new policy prohibiting certain student organizations from instituting belief-based requirements that their members or officers affirm the official values of the group. FIRE has been actively working to turn back this violation of student groups’ right to freedom of association, as have 23 members of Congress. Most recently, FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley wrote about the matter in The Daily Caller. (Will’s column also points readers to this Torch piece on the case that Robert wrote in September.) Will reminds us of the Supreme Court’s previous wisdom on freedom of association-which […]

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  • Robert on Vanderbilt’s Nondiscrimination Policy Issues in ‘The Daily Caller’

    November 1, 2011

    In light of recent transgressions by Vanderbilt University against the freedoms of religion and association, FIRE Senior Vice President Robert Shibley has penned an opinion article in The Daily Caller bringing some attention to the absurdity of Vanderbilt’s student group policies when dealing with the Vanderbilt chapter of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) and other religious student groups. Robert writes: Nobody should be surprised that religious groups, on or off campus, prefer to be led by people who share their faith. Demanding that a religious student group not ask its leaders to share the beliefs of the group serves no one. Who benefits when nonbelievers have […]

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