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 policies like Vanderbilt’s at public universities in the state-and maybe also private universities such as Vanderbilt. The City Paper (Nashville) reports:
Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) and 22 other Republican House members addressed a letter to the board of trust and asked them to reconsider the application of all-comers to religious groups. Dunn’s office confirmed that the letter was supposed to be sent yesterday [Tuesday].
"We acknowledge that private institutions such as Vanderbilt University have the freedom to establish its associations and maintain the integrity of its institutional mission," Dunn wrote to the Board. "But the state has a right not to subsidize any part of the operations of those organizations, like Vanderbilt University that engage in unequal treatment of individuals and organizations, the effect of which is religious discrimination."
Indeed, Vanderbilt is free to change its character to become a place that engages in religious discrimination, like some sectarian religious colleges do. Yet, Vanderbilt ought to be held to its binding promises of free expression so long as it still pretends to be a university that makes such promises.
This week, students distributed thousands of copies of an excellent short video about how Vanderbilt is discriminating in the name of non-discrimination. The video includes supportive clips from interviews with students and alumni-and even a brave faculty member or two. Concerned students also are hosting a barbecue to which Board of Trust members have been invited, and have been planning additional events.
See also this 30-second ad running this week in the local area urging alumni and other viewers to phone Board of Trust members John Ingram and Orrin Ingram with the message, "Not Another Dime Until Vanderbilt Respects Religious Freedom" (that is, by reversing its discriminatory policy).
Finally, here’s an illuminating FAQ from InterVarsity at Vanderbilt. We recommend that you read it in full, particularly the answer to "What are your main concerns about this policy?", but here’s a useful excerpt:
Isn’t this really just about money? No. Campus religious groups advocating for this policy to be changed are not asking to receive any funding from Vanderbilt.
Most campus religious groups do not receive any money from student activities fees or funding from Vanderbilt. For example, InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship, which has been on provisional status this year due to this policy, has received no money from Vanderbilt. The funds in our Vanderbilt student account are from private donations. Religious groups can apply to the Interfaith Council for grants, which are typically associated with one-time events that are open to all students, such as bringing in a guest speaker or doing a service project. Graduate Christian Fellowship received one of these grants two years ago. If Interfaith Council would like to vote to limit these funds to groups that have no faith requirements for their leadership, they are certainly free to do so.
Don’t you want to limit your membership to only certain students? No. All religious groups on campus are open to any and all students as members. Many of our groups are very diverse. We are committed to being hospitable and welcoming.
Isn’t this really about sex and sexuality? No. We welcome the protection for GLBTQI students on this campus and want to retain this language in the nondiscrimination policy. We do not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation, and we join with the administration in wanting our campus to be a welcoming place for all students.
Most sacred texts do address sexual behavior. In Christian traditions represented among our staff team, believers look to scripture to govern their understanding of sex and the use of our bodies. However, it is overly simplistic to say that religious groups want to exclude anyone due to their sexuality. Students who are nominated to be leaders for our group are not asked how they identify sexually. They are asked what they think of the Bible, the resurrection of Jesus, and basic doctrines of the faith. That is the conversation we want to be having with prospective leaders, as well as discussing their vision for the group and for leadership. Sexuality, for all of us, is complicated. And there are as many stories and shades of sexual identity and practice on this campus as there are students. We do not use sexual identity as a litmus test for leadership. Instead, we want all of our student leaders, regardless of sexual identity, to seek to live lives of obedience to Scripture in every area of life, including sexual practice, in response to God’s unconditional love.
Again, please read the whole FAQ. It is heartening to see so many people standing up for religious liberty and equality against Vanderbilt’s deeply controversial choice to discriminate against its own students.