Tish Harrison Warren, a former religious student group leader at Vanderbilt University, has authored a poignant article in Christianity Today about the effect on her life of a policy decision Vanderbilt made two years ago.
In the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, Vanderbilt prohibited belief-based student organizations such as religious and political groups from making belief-based choices about their leadership and membership. The all-too-appropriate title of her article is “The Wrong Kind of Christian,” since the result of Vanderbilt’s so-called “all-comers” policy (“so-called” because it allows fraternities and sororities not to take all comers) is that some religious believers are welcome at Vanderbilt while some are not. Far from being inclusive, Warren’s article (like this earlier story out of Bowdoin College) brings into stark relief the exclusion that results when freedom of association is trampled on campus.
In May 2011, Vanderbilt’s director of religious life told me that the group I’d helped lead for two years, Graduate Christian Fellowship—a chapter of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship—was on probation. We had to drop the requirement that student leaders affirm our doctrinal and purpose statement, or we would lose our status as a registered student organization.
In writing, the new policy refers only to constitutionally protected classes (race, religion, sexual identity, and so on), but Vanderbilt publicly adopted an “all comers policy,” which meant that no student could be excluded from a leadership post on ideological grounds. College Republicans must allow Democrats to seek office; the environmental group had to welcome climate-change skeptics; and a leader of a religious group could not be dismissed if she renounced faith midyear. (The administration granted an exception to sororities and fraternities.)
Warren’s beliefs don’t appear to be particularly exotic; she opens the article by assuring readers, “I’m not a fundamentalist. My friends and I enjoy art, alcohol, and cultural engagement. We avoid spiritual clichés and buzzwords. We value authenticity, study, racial reconciliation, and social and environmental justice.” Millions of Americans would identify the same way. So, like many religious students on campus that FIRE interacts with, Warren at first believed that common sense and the American tradition of pluralism would triumph:
At first I thought this was all a misunderstanding that could be sorted out between reasonable parties. If I could explain to the administration that doctrinal statements are an important part of religious expression—an ancient, enduring practice that would be a given for respected thinkers like Thomas Aquinas—then surely they’d see that creedal communities are intellectually valid and permissible. If we could show that we weren’t homophobic culture warriors but friendly, thoughtful evangelicals committed to a diverse, flourishing campus, then the administration and religious groups could find common ground.
She would soon find out how wrong she was.
The line between good and evil was drawn by two issues: creedal belief and sexual expression. If religious groups required set truths or limited sexual autonomy, they were bad—not just wrong but evil, narrow-minded, and too dangerous to be tolerated on campus.
It didn’t matter to them if we were politically or racially diverse, if we cared about the environment or built Habitat homes. It didn’t matter if our students were top in their fields and some of the kindest, most thoughtful, most compassionate leaders on campus. There was a line in the sand, and we fell on the wrong side of it.
The entire article is well worth the few minutes it takes to read, as it very effectively shows the human side of the exclusion of those with “unacceptable” religious beliefs from campus. That’s especially important as the entire California State University system is set to begin enforcing its own “all-comers” policy this fall. Thousands more religious students in California will soon join the 1,400 members of 14 religious student organizations exiled from Vanderbilt two years ago. And like Tish’s group at Vanderbilt, they’ll likely be reduced to this:
After we lost our registered status, our organization was excluded from new student activity fairs. So our student leaders decided to make T-shirts to let others know about our group. Because we were no longer allowed to use Vanderbilt’s name, we struggled to convey that we were a community of Vanderbilt students who met near campus. So the students decided to write a simple phrase on the shirts: WE ARE HERE.
That should not be happening on American college campuses.