Once upon a time, American universities encouraged students to create community around common interests and protected the right of student organizations to operate in a manner consistent with their beliefs.
But a rising tide of resistance to religious organizations on college campuses, allegedly aimed at reducing intolerance, ironically advances it, fostering an unwelcoming and hostile learning environment for many students and threatening the very existence of religious student organizations.
In the fall of 2010, Vanderbilt University began investigating the constitutions of every religious organization on its Nashville, Tenn., campus after a discrimination complaint was filed against a Christian fraternity. During the investigation, the university changed the student organization handbook to remove a section protecting religious association. The university eliminated a clause that read, "In affirming its commitment to this principle [of non-discrimination], the University does not limit freedom of religious association and does not require adherence to this principle by government agencies or external organizations that associate with but are not controlled by the University."
In a letter to Vanderbilt students and faculty on Jan. 20, Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos insisted that the university "does not seek to limit anyone's freedom to practice his or her religion. We do, however, require all Vanderbilt registered student organizations to observe our nondiscrimination policy. That means membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions."
Contrary to the university's stated goal of inclusion and tolerance, the change in policy jeopardizes the operational freedom of all religious organizations on campus. Patricia Helland, an associate dean who oversees religious life at Vanderbilt, defended the change in an interview saying "organizations can have core beliefs, but that organizations can't require their members or leaders to abide by or adhere to those core beliefs."
It begs the question: How can an organization maintain its identity without the ability to choose its members and leaders based on those beliefs? The answer is: It can't.
Vanderbilt's new nondiscrimination policy enables a Jewish student to become president of the Muslim student organization, or a Christian student to become the president of the campus Hindu organization.
Vanderbilt's new nondiscrimination policy undermines the very purpose of encouraging students to organize around a common interest, threatening students' ability to create community and develop vibrant supporting and learning environments for themselves. Has it really come to a point where students who meet for a common interest can be accused of discrimination for excluding someone who doesn't share the defining interests of their organization?
While university administrations – and it's not just Vanderbilt; certain universities across America are instituting overly broad, counterproductive nondiscrimination policies – seem blind to their own cognitive dissonance, the Supreme Court, fortunately, has acknowledged the fundamental importance to religious entities of government noninterference with their leadership standards. In his concurring opinion in the Jan. 11 decision in Hosanna-Tabor vs. EEOC regarding religious association, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that "a religious body's right to self-governance must include the ability to select, and to be selective about, those who will serve as the very embodiment of its message."
University administrators and the activists who are targeting religious organizations with discrimination complaints would have us believe that new anti-discrimination policies are not that big of a deal. But under Vanderbilt's policy, for example, all registered organizations – religious, non-religious, fraternities, sororities and political organizations alike – must agree to the new policy by April 16. Otherwise, in the name of fairness under these misguided policies, they should be forced off campus.
Vanderbilt's new religious nondiscrimination policy is still subject to input from the community (although university officials have denied the local Christian Legal Society president a chance to speak on behalf of the school's religious organizations at an upcoming town hall meeting.) But on many campuses the quest for tolerance has already codified aggressive intolerance, and on many more it could come in the near future.
If students are to flourish in a learning environment that values diversity, community and debate, college administrators must return to the nationwide practice of allowing an exemption in their religious nondiscrimination policy for religious organizations – organizations whose very reason for existence is to promote a particular religion. Policies like Vanderbilt's irrationally discriminate against such groups, and fail to fulfill universities' duty to protect students' rights to associate and operate under their constitutionally-protected beliefs.
Jason Hoyt is the Executive Director of Beta Upsilon Chi, a national Christian fraternity affected by Vanderbilt's change in policy.