Published March 29, 2012
Is Vanderbilt University waging a war on religion?
Many of the university’s religious student groups think so. They have been told by the administration that they cannot have faith or belief-based requirements for leadership. That means an atheist could run for leadership of a Christian group, a Jew for leadership of a Muslim group, a Pagan for leadership of a Catholic group, and on and on.
It’s all written into Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination or “all-comers” policy.
All student groups must register next month. As part of the registration, they must sign a statement of affirmation that they will abide by the nondiscrimination policy.
Vandy Catholic -- a student group with some 500 members -- has decided it cannot agree to the policy and will be leaving campus in the fall. PJ Jedlovec, the president of Vandy Catholic, says it was a difficult decision, one made after much prayer and discussion.
“We are first and foremost a Catholic organization," says Jedlovec. “We do, in fact, have qualifications – faith-based qualifications for leadership. We require that our leaders be practicing Catholics. And the university’s nondiscrimination policy -- they have made it clear that there is no room in it for an organization that has these faith-based qualifications.”
The university says it is “deeply disappointed” by Vandy Catholic’s decision. But the administration is sticking by its guns. In a statement provided to Fox News, Vice Chancellor of Public Affairs Beth Fortune said, “We do not believe our nondiscrimination policy to be incompatible with religious freedom. Vanderbilt’s policy does not mandate whom student organizations should elect as leaders -- it simply allows for anyone to be eligible for membership and to seek a leadership position.”
Religious groups used to have an exemption from the university’s nondiscrimination policy, but that language was erased last year. The Christian Legal Society, which was cited as being out of compliance with the nondiscrimination rules, points out that fraternities and sororities are exempt from the “all-comers” policy and that religious groups should be, too.
What’s ironic is that Vandy Catholic is in compliance. It’s constitution simply states that potential leaders must be “undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University.” But when the school re-iterated its policy in preparation for spring registration, Vandy Catholic leaders felt their hands were tied.
Father John Sims Baker is Vandy Catholic’s chaplain. He told Fox News, “I was trying to withhold judgment about it. But I do have to say I really felt kind of kicked in the gut – actually…that’s what I felt. I thought, you know, I could sort of see where I was afraid this was going.”
As a private university, Vanderbilt is allowed to make rules that might not pass muster at a public institution. In fact, Tennessee lawmakers are working on legislation that would specifically prohibit state universities from extending nondiscrimination policies to student religious groups.
In another attempt to change the school administration’s mind, other religious groups on campus plan to sign the statement of affirmation, then submit charters that clearly outline a faith-based criteria for leadership.
That will likely provoke another confrontation with Vanderbilt leadership -- one that may see more religious student groups leave.