Debate Over Religious Freedom Comes to a Head at Vanderbilt

By 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 at Vanderbilt—it dominated the first page of yesterday’s Vanderbilt Hustler, Vandy’s main college newspaper, and its counterpart InsideVandy.com. But you wouldn’t know it from the reaction of Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos and the Vanderbilt administration, which has stubbornly refused to respond to basic questions about its new policy, such as "If a leader of Vanderbilt’s Muslim Student Assocation were to convert to Christianity, would the group be required to keep him or her as a leader, despite the fact that he or she is no longer Muslim?" That’s the logical outcome of the policy that Vanderbilt is now choosing. The policy would also force the College Democrats to accept Republicans as members, since the policy affects all belief-based student groups, including political organizations. None of this makes a lick of sense, of course, and if I were Chancellor Zeppos, I would do everything I could to avoid having to answer questions about these scenarios and others like them.

And oh boy, has the Vandy administration ever been avoiding that question. It can’t have been easy. We posed it back in September, and again in an open letter we ran as a half-page advertisement in the Hustler on Monday. And we weren’t the only ones asking: so far, Vanderbilt has ignored the concerns of FIRE; the Christian Legal Society; the Roman Catholic Bishop of Nashville; the American Center for Law and Justice; more than half a dozen law professors; leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, and the Southern Baptist Convention; and no fewer than 23 members of the U.S. Congress, all of whom had the same or similar objections to the policy. Vanderbilt’s response on these substantive questions? Silence.

Students and alumni have been galvanized to action. A group called Restore Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt has formed to oppose the new policy, and is even running radio ads in Nashville opposing the change. The Vanderbilt College Republicans have joined them and have produced a video featuring students who oppose the new policy. UPDATE: I also have a new column in the Daily Caller about it.

Tonight, hopefully, students will finally have the chance to ask these questions of Vanderbilt administrators. Of course, they’ll only be asking them from the floor of an auditorium; the request of the student leader of Vanderbilt’s Christian Legal Society, whose organization is probably first on the chopping block, for 10 minutes of a 90 minute meeting to present an opposing view was denied. Let’s hope that this time, some answers are forthcoming.

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Schools: Vanderbilt University Cases: Nationwide: “All-comers” Policies Jeopardize Free Association Vanderbilt University: Refusal to Approve Constitutions of Student Groups that Require Leaders to Share Beliefs