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Back to December Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 311 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS DECEMBER 2011

Vanderbilt Discrimination Signals a National Trend
Four Vanderbilt University Christian groups may soon be kicked off campus for requiring their members and leaders to conform to long-held standards of belief and behavior. Vanderbilt's Christian Legal Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Graduate Christian Fellowship and the Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi came under fire last year when the fraternity removed a member from leadership after he revealed he was involved in a homosexual relationship. School administrators responded to the removal with a review of the constitutions of all official student groups, and eleven groups were found to have violated the school's nondiscrimination policy. Today, only the four Christian groups are still under scrutiny. Administrators have forbidden the groups to require leaders to agree to statements of faith or to require participation in specific activities, stating that no group is permitted to restrict its own membership.

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Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs, said in a written statement,

"In order to be a registered student organization - which means using the Vanderbilt name, having the opportunity to apply for funding from student activity fees and access to university resources - opportunities for membership must be accessible to all."

Representatives from the Vanderbilt groups are negotiating with school officials, but so far they have reached no agreement. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has also been unsuccessful at negotiation attempts, and has appealed to Vanderbilt alumni in an attempt to pressure the school into rethinking its actions. In October twenty-three congressmen joined the InterVarsity campaign with a letter sent to Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos asking him to reconsider the school's treatment of religious groups. Even so, Jim Lundgren, Intervarsity's director of collegiate ministries, is not optimistic about the chances of reaching a satisfactory agreement: "We all see the handwriting on the wall."

Justin Gunter, president of Vanderbilt's Christian Legal Society, says he is dissatisfied with the University's response to negotiation attempts:

"This has been an ongoing issue for six months and we have yet to receive any real response despite complying with everything they've asked of us . . . A policy that limits religious groups' ability to have religious leaders and activities decreases religious diversity . . . Vanderbilt should ensure its non-discrimination policy does not undermine the university's religious diversity."

Carol Swain, professor of law and political science at Vanderbilt, has also taken issue with the University's response. "This hastily conceived policy has the potential to destroy every religious organization on campus by secularizing religion and allowing intolerant conflict," Swain wrote in a September 14 column in The Tennessean. "Carried to its logical extension, it means that no organization can maintain integrity of beliefs." In a phone interview with the Hustler, a Vanderbilt campus newspaper, Swain said the university was attempting to secularize religion on campus: "From my perspective, (the policy) goes too far . . . I felt this issue does affect alumni and donors and they need to know what the university is doing."

The Vanderbilt case is just one of dozens playing out all over the country. InterVarsity reports that last year, only two of their campus chapters came into conflict with administrators over decisions to choose or remove leaders based on their beliefs. This year, fifteen chapters have been cited in violation of campus nondiscrimination policies. As a precaution, InterVarsity sent several staffers to an evangelical student conference in Poland earlier this year in order to learn about ministry strategies from groups in countries where Christian organizations are forbidden to meet on college campuses. A report detailing their findings was sent to all InterVarsity chapters.

David Cortman, scnior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund, has also noted the uptick in campus religious discrimination:

"The university is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, but it ends up being the storefront of censorship . . . Rather than being wide open to all viewpoints, including some you may disagree with, [administrators] want you to agree with liberal orthodoxy just to maintain equal status on campus."

Two cases in particular, one decided in the high court last year, and one that may be decided there next year, are redefining religious rights on campus. CLS v. Martinez, in which a chapter of the Christian Legal Society came in conflict with administrators at Hastings Law School in California, was decided in the school's favor. Campus groups at Hastings Law School are now forbidden to hold to membership restrictions of any kind.

ADF v. Reed will help determine whether religious organizations can maintain their status as official school groups. The Alliance Defense Fund plans to ask the high court to consider the California case after the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the California State University system could prohibit membership restrictions based on certain criteria. Unlike Hastings Law School, the California State system does not have an existing "all-comers policy," and the Supreme Court decision in CLS v. Martinez does not apply to private schools.

Robert Sibley of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) worries that the Supreme Court's handling of ADF v. Reed may be damaging to religious groups "by specifically setting out the principle that religious groups can be discriminated against when it comes to being told that they can't require certain beliefs of their members." He warns,

"And so people who are involved withs Christian groups who have beliefs that require that the other people in their groups share their beliefs, I think they are under a serious threat from the legal climate and the cultural climate on today's college campuses."
 
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