For the past seven years, I have been the faculty adviser for the Christian Legal Society (CLS) at Vanderbilt University. CLS has been on the Vanderbilt campus for more than 20 years. During this time, it has operated in the same way as have other campus ministries. CLS has always been a positive force on campus, actively participating in the law school community by hosting weekly meetings, guest speakers, and Bible studies; performing community service; and serving hot breakfasts at the law school during exam periods.
The organization’s status began to change during the spring of 2011, when the University Administration informed CLS and three other religious groups (Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Graduate Christian Fellowship, and Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity) that they would lose university recognition unless they agreed to a new policy stipulating that religious groups could no longer require their leaders to share their beliefs. More specifically, the new policy was interpreted by administrators to mean that Christian groups could no longer expect their leaders to head Bible studies or worship. The new policy contained no provisions for addressing situations where leaders change their beliefs, reject biblical lifestyles, or embrace atheism. Initially, CLS sought to comply with the University’s new policy by making appropriate changes to its constitution, such as the removal of verses of Scripture regarding biblical lifestyles. Unfortunately, these concessions were not enough to appease the university.
After several rounds of having its revisions rejected, CLS joined forces with other Christian ministries who sought to persuade the university to reinstate its longstanding policy of granting allowing religious groups to have religious leadership requirements. Meetings with University officials, who announced with the introduction of the policy that it was non-negotiable, were to no avail. Our efforts to set up meetings with members of the Board of Trust were thwarted at every turn, as university administrators refused to deliver materials and letters that would have helped Board members understand the issues at stake. Throughout the process, the University repeatedly changed its explanation of the policy and what it was designed to accomplish. After months of framing the issue around its “non-discrimination” policy, the university made a sudden switch and began referring to the new policy as an “all-comers.”
In the spring of 2012, CLS and 13 other Christian groups at Vanderbilt applied for organizational status with constitutions that included affirmations of faith. As expected, the university refused to approve the applications of the groups who stated that their faith required them to have leaders who shared their beliefs. After the University rejected their applications, 14 of these groups lost the rights and privileges of registered student organizations. These now unregistered groups are paying a high price for their decision to preserve the integrity of their religious beliefs. On the Vanderbilt campus, unregistered groups can no longer use the University’s mail server to announce their meetings. They cannot post notices on bulletin boards, co-sponsor events with other student organizations, or participate in interfaith activities and student fairs.
Vanderbilt University’s intolerance of and open hostility toward these unregistered groups means that they cannot operate effectively as student organizations. When Vanderbilt’s efforts to exclude the religious groups began, it was estimated that one-third of the student body had had an affiliation with one or more of the unregistered groups. But, as a result of Vanderbilt’s actions, their numbers have shrunk. They must operate underground when recruiting new members and making others aware of what their organizations have to offer. If the current trend continues, these organizations may cease to exist in a few years.
Vanderbilt must be held accountable for its decision to trample upon the civil liberties of its students in the name of political correctness. The University’s new policy runs counter to any notion of a university being a marketplace of ideas. Moreover, it sends to students the chilling message that Vanderbilt’s leaders have the right to unilaterally decide which ideas the university will tolerate and affirm. Through this policy and its targeted application, the University is openly discriminating against Bible-believing religious organizations and perpetrating a troubling double standard by creating elitist exceptions to its “all-comers” policy.
We should be especially troubled that an institution of higher education, irrespective of whether it is public or private, would show open contempt for the foundational principles of religious liberty found in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Vanderbilt is a private institution, but its students should not have to check their constitutional rights at the door when they matriculate at the university. Students at private universities should be taught by educators who model a healthy respect for our basic civil liberties. Even while asserting its liberties as a private institution, Vanderbilt receives over half a billion dollars in federal funds and over 24 million dollars in state funds; its university police are clothed by the state and possess the same police powers as other governmental entities. Therefore, Vanderbilt should be held accountable as a state actor and should not be allowed to feed at the public trough at the same time as it openly discriminates against a significant percentage of its student body.
Although the main focus of my statement is on the rights of students, the University also took action last year that stripped faculty of their freedom of religious expression. Ostensibly, this was done to bring the faculty handbook into alignment with the student handbook. After first removing language that protected the religious freedom of students, the University took the additional step of removing protections that faculty have enjoyed for decades that were in addition to Title VII’s statutory protections against religious discrimination. The question arises. Why would a major university engage in such actions? We have been told that Vanderbilt hopes to become a model for other universities around the country who find the presence of conservative Christian organizations an unwelcome entity on their campuses, as university administrators advance a new morality of unbridled secularism.
I am encouraged by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission’s decision to investigate the discrimination taking place at Vanderbilt University and other campuses across the nation. I hope that this information will be helpful as the Commission pursues its investigations.
Links to Supporting Information
Vanderbilt’s e-mail to CLS chapter president
Vanderbilt orders group to drop allegiance to Jesus Christ
Vanderbilt’s 2010/2011 Student Handbook protected religious liberty
Vanderbilt’s 2010/2011 handbook eliminated religious protections
Vanderbilt’s new policy for student groups