Vanderbilt University’s Dangerous Flirtation with Religious Suppression

Vanderbilt University’s Dangerous Flirtation with Religious Suppression

(Published in The Tennessean 9/15/2011)

Evangelical Christians are increasingly under attack for their biblically-based worldviews. Shortly after graduation last spring, Vanderbilt University’s Office of Religious Life quietly deferred its annual approval of several mostly conservative Christian organizations.

Groups affected included the Christian Legal Society, InterVarsity and the graduate chapter of Campus Crusade. These organizations face an uncertain future because of a new policy that prohibits religious organizations from requiring that their leaders share the same beliefs and goals of the organizations they seek to lead. The policy goes one step further by hamstringing Bible studies.

According to a letter from the acting director of the Office of Religious Life, Bible studies are suspect because they “would seem to indicate that officers are expected to hold certain beliefs.’’ The letter goes on to explain: “Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation/qualification for officers.’’

If this policy is implemented, it will make it harder for the students to have on-campus fellowship with like-minded believers and it will make it more difficult for them to grow in or even maintain their faith while on campus. The policy sends a clear message to students: religious associations are not a valued or respected part of the university’s ideological diversity.

This hastily conceived policy has the potential to destroy every religious organization on campus by secularizing religion and allowing intolerant conflict. Carried to its logical extension, it means that no organization can maintain integrity of beliefs. Christians can seek to lead Muslim organizations, Muslims can seek to lead Jewish ones, and Wiccans can seek to lead Catholic fellowships. The policy encourages people holding antithetical views to infiltrate organizations they seek to destroy.

Universities and colleges around the country are increasingly seeking to impose secular ideology upon religious organizations under the guise of political correctness.

Recently, the Supreme Court allowed a public law school to require all student groups to accept any and all student-comers for leadership positions, regardless of whether the students agreed with the groups’ goals and purposes; however, the Court carefully pointed out that the policy applied to all groups, not just religious groups.

By adopting a more restrictive policy than the Supreme Court allowed, the university aims to get national publicity for its aggressive policy.

Perhaps donors and alumni should weigh in on Vanderbilt’s new policy. The First Amendment protects freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of worship, and the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits religious discrimination. It is not too late for Vanderbilt University to honor and respect the principles and traditions that helped make our nation and the Western university great.

Carol M. Swain is professor of political science and of law at Vanderbilt University. Her most recent book is Be the People: a Call to Reclaim America’s Faith and Promise.


21 Responses to Vanderbilt University’s Dangerous Flirtation with Religious Suppression

  1. You shoulod check your facts more carefully. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits religious discrimination in employment, but Title
    VI of the Act, which is the one relevant to your Tennessean article,
    applies only to race, color, or national origin. And I’ll bet any-
    thing Vanderbilt has policies similar to the one you cite that
    apply to all campus organizations, not just religious groups.

    • carolswain says:

      Thank you Mr. Lottman. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 includes religion as a protected category. Private institutions that take federal funds are required to comply with the Act. I don’t know what you know about the Vanderbilt University situation. I know that legal counsel from three affected organizations, university personnel, and student presidents have not resolved these issues. I think you should be concerned about the First Amendment issues raised. Although Vanderbilt is a private institution, it should set an example by not trampling the Constitution. Please have a great day. I am not at liberty to share my documentation with you. I am sure we will be hearing more in the days and weeks to come.

  2. Marlene wiggins says:

    Today’s youth is in crisis in a complex society. University’s should applaud Christian groups within their campus instead of this nonsense. Christians in the US come under attack too often as folks pull away from church also is the distance for morality.

  3. Roland Mumfird says:

    Please have Justin Gunter contact me. I am a local attorney.

  4. Dave Lukasek says:

    Mr. Lottman has managed to completely remove any trace of common sense from his argument. The very idea that ANY religious based group should be forced to allow those of other religions into its group, let alone serve on its boards of directors and such, is ludicrous. People like Mr. Lottman continue to confuse the “establishment clause” with a myriad of other issues, including “civil rights”. Evidence, therefore, suggests he is a Harvard educated lawyer.

  5. Bassett says:

    Thank you, Dr. Swain, for your article. The encroachment of progressives into the lives of religious persons would never be tolerated if the invasion was into a more politically correct protected class. Their desire to elevate an Act (such as the Civil Rights Act) above the Constitution is evident in Mr. Lottman’s critique. Those who take federal monies to run a business, especially a business so critical to our nation as education, ought to uphold the higher rules set forth in our Constitution. If Congress shall make no law…, then perhaps the Vanderbilt leadership should consider their own encraochment into that area more thoughtfully. The Act was never intended to become license to obstruct the rights to peaceably assemble or to practice one’s religion in the setting of that peaceable assembly. While the Constitution does not secure the rights of individuals against private organizations, it should definitely impact tax-payer funding of those organizations.

  6. Lilly says:

    What kind of university is this? That rule is ridiculous. The Christian Legal Society should definitely have a Christian leader. And if there’s a Jewish club its leader should be a Jew. What’s so hard to understand about that? A 7 year old would know this.
    Students who want to create chaos at Vanderbilt will start to take advantage of this ridiculous rule. The people who came up with it should be fired if they’re still working there.
    Many universities say they are the most tolerant places. But they’re not. They hate anything having to do with religion; especially Christianity.

  7. Elizabeth Jones says:

    This is an amazing story. Just goes to show you what happens when open-mindedness turns into brains-falling-out. This is a fine example of the reason I would not pay to send my children to Vandy, but how glad I am that you, Carol, are there and that there are brave souls to fight the good fight! The poor souls behind the problems here are intellectually dishonest but unfortunately in control. Please know that my prayers are for your success, but even if the battle is lost, the war has already been won. I will be watching and praying.

  8. Elizabeth Jones says:

    This is an amazing story. Just goes to show you what happens when open-mindedness turns into brains-falling-out. This is a fine example of the reason I would not pay to send my children to Vandy, but how glad I am that you, Carol, are there and that there are brave students and faculty to fight the good fight! The poor souls behind the problems here are intellectually dishonest but unfortunately in control. Please know that my prayers are for your success, but even if the battle is lost, the war has already been won. I will be watching and praying.

  9. Jeff Fager says:

    I just found this post through the link on the Chronicle of HE note about this issue. One question: What are the consequences of Office of Religious Life’s decision? That breaks down into “sub-questions.” Do the groups lose funding from the university and/or student government? Are they banned from meeting on campus? I believe there is one debate to be had if the groups “merely” lose funding, but the members may still associate freely on campus.

    • carolswain says:

      The groups would not be allowed to use University facilities without paying room rental fees. It would also affect their ability to compete for student activities funds. Nor would they be allowed to have a recruitment table at student fairs.

  10. Lilly says:

    Besides writing a comment here yesterday, I also wrote an e-mail to the Chancellor at Vanderbilt. I suggest everyone do the same. This policy is not fair.
    His e-mail is: nick.zeppos@vanderbilt.edu

  11. […] Vanderbilt University’s Dangerous Flirtation with Religious Suppression  by Carol M. Swain.  The article was published in The Tennessean 9/15/2011, but I only found out […]

  12. […] Vanderbilt University’s Dangerous Flirtation with Religious Suppression  by Carol M. Swain.  The article was published in The Tennessean 9/15/2011, but I only found out […]

  13. Jessica says:

    Dr. Swain, what Supreme Court case are you referring to? Is it Christian Legal Society v. Martinez? The holding in that case is limited to public schools or schools that accept federal funding. As a private institution, isn’t Vanderbilt within it’s legal right to set these requirements for its student organizations? If these students decide to sue, do they even have a cause of action?

    • carolswain says:

      Thank you for writing. Vanderbilt is a private institution that takes millions of dollars in federal funds each year. Therefore, it would still be expected to comply with statutory law that bars discrimination on account of race, national orgin, gender, and religion. Moreover, in CLS v. Martinez the University applied its rule to all student organizations and there was no evidence that the University had purposely sought to harm religious groups. Whereas, Vanderbilt specifically removed language from its antidiscrimination policy that that protected religious groups. The religious groups on campus who are protesting the changes are hoping that the University will reinstate the previous policy.

  14. Kathryn Boehne says:

    Keep up the good fight and run your race to the finish Dr. Swain – God bless you for your courage and conviction.

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