One of Vanderbilt University’s largest Christian student organizations has announced it will formally break ties with the Tennessee school, becoming the latest victim of the college’s intolerant policy on student club leadership.
Vanderbilt Catholic announced last week that is it unable to comply with the school’s new nondiscrimination policy that prohibits student groups from maintaining belief or faith-based qualifications for leadership positions.
“The Administration is forcing religious groups to open leadership positions to all students, regardless of whether or not they practice the religion or even know anything about it,” Father John Sims Baker, chaplain of the 500-member Catholic group, explained.
Vanderbilt updated the school’s nondiscrimination policy at the beginning of March, applying what administrators call an “all-comers” policy to student groups. The policy states: “Registered student organizations must be open to all students as members and must permit all members in good standing to seek leadership posts.”
Vanderbilt Catholic’s leadership has explained that the organization allows any student to become a member but requires those in leadership to share the group’s beliefs.
Any student group wishing to remain affiliated with Vanderbilt during the next school year is required to sign an agreement to abide by the new nondiscrimination policy and submit group bylaws that ensure inclusion of any student wishing to become a member or leader.
In a letter to its members announcing that the group will move off campus for the next school year, Vanderbilt Catholic’s student board wrote:
After much reflection, discussion, and prayer, we have decided that Vanderbilt Catholic cannot in good conscience affirm that we comply with this policy.… We are a faith-based organization. A Catholic student organization led by someone who neither professes the Catholic faith nor strives to live it out would not be able to serve its members as an authentically Catholic organization. We cannot sign the affirmation form and remain [a registered student organization] because to do so would be to lie to the university and to ourselves about who we are as an organization.
Vanderbilt Catholic joins four other evangelical student groups who are unable to abide by the new policy in good conscience, relinquishing their official status with the school and losing the use of school facilities for meetings. The Christian Legal Society, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Beta Upsilon Chi, and Graduate Student Fellowship will also make plans to leave campus.
“While eliminating this freedom of association, you’re effectively eliminating free speech,” explained one student at a three-hour January town-hall meeting with Vanderbilt administrators. “While, as a private institution, you may be able to do so, how can you justify that?”
The administrators’ responses devolved into comparing Christian student groups opposed to the policy to segregationists. They tried to defend the policy as increasing diversity of viewpoints, but with some of the largest student organizations forced to leave school grounds, the university’s policy may have the opposite effect.
“Our fear is that we’ve gone full circle,” stated a student at the same town hall. “Instead of now protect diversity, we’ve come around to the point where we’re infringing on diversity, we’re infringing on the diversity specifically of religious organizations.”
Yet the administrators remain unmoved. Facing the difficult choice between denying their beliefs and obeying the administration’s restrictive policy or leaving campus, many students of affected organizations are united in their opposition to the policy.
As Father Baker stated, “It has become quite clear to the students that we either stand for something or fall for anything.”