TN Legislature Seeks to Overturn Bizarre Vanderbilt Rule

By 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 Lawand Religious Freedom. "A lot of jaws dropped when we saw how far the Vanderbilt administration was taking this."

Thirteen Christian groups have so far decided to defy the ban on requiring a member to actually be a Christian. Two groups have announced plans to leave campus. Considering that Vanderbilt has a longstanding tradition of religious belief (it was originally a Methodist institution established for the study of theology) many student groups are in shock at the bizarre new requirements.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education is also concerned by Vanderbilt’s radical new policy and has written an open letter to the Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos asking him to clarify whether the policy will be applied fairly and equally or is merely a targeted persecution of Christian groups. For example,would Vanderbilt’s Muslim Students Association be forced to keep a leader who converted to Christianity? FIRE also asked Zeppos to explain how leaders of Christian groups were to fulfill their responsibilities if they were, as happened to the Christian Legal Society, prohibited from requiring their leaders to ‘lead Bible studies, prayer and worship’ because this implied the necessity of holding a particular religious belief.

State Rep Bill Dunn notes that the ‘all-comers’ policy doesn’t apply to fraternities and sororities which are exempted through federal Title IX regulations that apply to gender issues."

It shows the hypocrisy of Vanderbilt University," Dunn said. "They know they can pick on Christian groups and it won’t affect their donors. But if they go after fraternities and sororities they realize it might hit them in the pocket book."

Many questions in the FIRE letter boil down to the core problem of an open admittance policy for student groups. What to do about groups of students from a differing political, religious belief (or sexual orientation) joining a group deliberately to disrupt or disband it?

The senate vote was won 19-12 and the House vote 61-22. The split was largely along party lines. The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam whose likely response is unclear. While he has publicly disapproved of Vanderbilt’s policy he has also indicated that he doesn’t believe the legislature should be interfering in the matter.

Schools: Vanderbilt University