FIRE Asks Vanderbilt to Respect Religious Liberty

By on September 29, 2011

Fox News Channel and Nashville newspaper The Tennessean are reporting on an ongoing controversy over religious student groups at Vanderbilt University. The Christian Legal Society (CLS) chapter at Vanderbilt Law School is among about a dozen student organizations (including five religious groups) that have seen their constitutions "deferred" rather than approved this year for noncompliance with Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination policy. FIRE has written a letter to Vanderbilt expressing our concerns about this new application of its policy, and is requesting a response by October 3.

At issue are two of CLS’s requirements for group leaders. First, CLS’s consitution states that "All officers of this Chapter must subscribe to the Christian Legal Society Statement of Faith." Rev. Gretchen Person, Interim Director of Religious Life at Vanderbilt, objected, saying that "Vanderbilt’s policies do not allow any student organization to preclude someone from a leadership position based on religious belief. Only performance-based criteria may be used."

Second, the document states that "Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at Chapter meetings as tasked by the President." Rev. Person similarly objected to this requirement, saying, "This would seem to indicate that officers are expected to hold certain beliefs. Again, Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation/qualification for officers."

Vanderbilt, then, seems perfectly fine with religious or other expressive groups on campus as long as those groups don’t actually expect their leaders to agree with the mission or purpose of the group.

Does this make any sense? For years, FIRE has been arguing that forbidding religious groups to make choices about their leaders on the basis of religious belief makes no sense at all. A religious message is only effective when communicated by a person who sincerely believes that message, and lacks all credibility coming from someone who doesn’t. Requiring that people who don’t agree with a group’s core tenets nevertheless be allowed to lead religious or other belief-based groups is nonsensical and counterproductive.

And it could be much worse, particularly when it comes to minority religious or ideological groups on campus. Forcing them to allow any student to become a leader regardless of belief can imperil their very existence. For instance, imagine that a ten-person College Socialists group exists on campus. One day, a group of twenty College Republicans shows up for the meeting, votes itself into the leadership by virtue of its superior numbers, and effectively disbands the group. This scenario is quite possible if groups cannot use belief-based standards to choose their leaders. At places like Central Michigan University, in fact, we’ve seen this tactic in action.

These examples, while unpleasant, are purely secular. You don’t need much imagination to see how much uglier it could get if religious groups were involved. Vanderbilt’s CLS has said that it is worried about this very possibility.

America’s tradition of religious pluralism doesn’t mean that we have forced churches, synagogues, and mosques to allow anyone to become a priest, minister, rabbi, or imam. What it means is that people have always been free to associate with one another according to their beliefs and form their own religious institutions and communities. And, as has happened many times in American history, when some members or leaders feel that they cannot agree with the beliefs of existing groups, they are free to form their own new groups with their own belief systems.

Up until now, that has not only been the case in our society at large, but has also been the case for student groups at most colleges and universities across the United States, including Vanderbilt. Only in the wake of a controversy over a Christian fraternity’s alleged dismissal of a gay member last year did Vanderbilt decide to review every student group’s constitution and apply this understanding of its nondiscrimination policy. Whatever the facts of that case might be (Vanderbilt has not been forthcoming), it is no reason to jettison the American tradition of religious pluralism.

Vanderbilt claims in its policies that "[t]he University is also part of the civic community in which it exists. Its members, both faculty and students, are entitled to exercise the rights of citizens and are subject to the responsibilities of citizens." Religious liberty and freedom of association are two of the rights of American citizens, including Vanderbilt’s students. If Vanderbilt wants to claim that it respects students’ fundamental rights, it must allow religious groups the freedom to be religious.

Schools: Vanderbilt University