A coalition of 11 Christian student groups are being forced to leave campus at Vanderbilt University over policy requiring them to open their leadership up to atheists, homosexuals and any other group even if they are antithetical to the group’s mission.
The campus groups, who call themselves Vanderbilt Solidarity, have joined together to oppose the university’s “all-comers” policy, which says student groups must be open to all students, including in leadership, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.
The groups say choosing leaders who share or profess their Christian faith is a key part to preserving the identity of the group.
The college continues to defend its policy saying the issue is about preventing discrimination, not inhibiting religious freedom.
However, several national groups such as the Intervarsity Christian Fellowship have strict requirements that those in leadership positions must affirm the organizations’ statement of faith and have trusted Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Under the all-comers rule, these organizations would have to leave campus unless the national organization changed the rules for all chapters.
One of the major concerns expressed by students is that the administration has refused to produce any written documentation on how the policy is to be interpreted. This has created confusion as the various groups have been given conflicting information on what is and is not acceptable under the new guidelines.
According to Justin Gunther, president of Christian Legal Society at Vanderbilt, a member of the administration said in public that if members of a Christian group were to use religious motivation as a basis for not voting for an officer they would be in violation of the university’s policy.
This contradicted statements made that evening by Provost Richard McCarty who said members could use any criteria they wanted to when voting, as long as everyone was given an opportunity to run for the position.
Gunther and others have called for Vanderbilt to release a written document explaining the policy clearly.
“We have been asking the university repeatedly to publish in a written form exactly what the scope of this policy is so we can be sure this is where the policy stops,” Gunther said.
Another student expressed similar sentiments asking why the groups were being asked to agree to a policy they had not seen. We “are being asked to adopt this policy without knowing the scope of it in writing and try it out for a year and then you will put it on paper… why is the onus on us to trust you for a year to work it out?”
McCarty acknowledged that the university did not have clear guidelines on the requirements and that none would be forthcoming. “It is virtually impossible to put down in a single document all of the permutations in one type of written policy.”
Dr. Carol Swain, a Christian professor of political law at Vanderbilt who is also a nationally recognized political scientist and author as well as a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University, where she was a tenured professor of politics and public policy in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, told the Gazette that despite administration claims that they were not changing their policy, Gunther was correct. Swain said an administrator in the office of student life told her they had never heard of the all-comers policy until the day of the meeting.
The unveiling of an all-comers policy after the fact is similar to what happened at another college that adopted an all-comers policy after CLS expelled an openly “gay” student for violating the group’s code of conduct which prohibited members from engaging in a “sexually immoral lifestyle. The code of conduct included “all acts of sexual conduct outside God’s design for marriage between one man and one woman.”
Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco initially told CLS the expulsion was not permitted under the school’s non-discrimination policy. However, after the college’s decision was challenged in court the administration suddenly declared it had an all-comers policy which applied to every group. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of the Hastings policy in a 5-4 decision. Justice John Roberts, in his dissenting opinion, noted that the college unveiled the all-comers policy for the first time during depositions on the case.
Defending the policy McCarty said the university was challenging CLS to “to be open to a member that does not share your faith who could be a wonderful member of CLS, maybe even a leader.”
“That person who maybe does not profess allegiance to Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Saviour should be allowed to run for office in CLS. Maybe it’s not chair or president, maybe it’s a person who is amazing at social outreach,” McCarty said. “It would still be consistent with your goals of serving the underserved with legal advice and legal services but maybe isn’t Christian but they endorse what you’re trying to do. Give that person a chance.”
Acknowledging that the policy would require Christian groups to give up their freedom McCarty said, “If we open memberships up to who is eligible to run for leadership positions, that is a good thing.”
Swain said while the new policy could cause great harm to Christian groups, there is also a great opportunity available to engage in real change with groups that are normally opposed to the Christian message.
“If this policy is allowed to stand, it will be difficult for any group to be able to move forward, but there will be grand opportunities for aggressive evangelism,” Swain said. “The university has unwittingly opened the door for Christians to be creative with the rules.”
Swain said that the university has put itselr in an awkward position. If policy sayd that Christians cannot join an LGBT, or Muslim group the university will be in violation of its own policy, however, allowing Christians to join these groups means they can effect change in the agenda of these groups.
Even though the policy requires all groups to open their membership and leadership positions to all students, the administration suggested it could selectively enforce the policy. Addressing the issue of minority groups being infiltrated, McCarty said, if a “hostile takeover” were to happen “we have other ways to deal with it.”