Like many university regulations, all-comers policies also invite selective application. Vanderbilt University’s half-baked policy allows fraternities and sororities to go on making sex-based membership choices, while religious groups can’t even require leaders to be able to lead Bible studies or prayers. Yet Vanderbilt Provost Richard McCarty actually told religious students that Vanderbilt was doing them a favor by enforcing the policy because students shouldn’t let their religious views dictate their life decisions. Amazingly, McCarty was seemingly unaware that his edict is the polar opposite of what most religions teach. For the state or for a supposedly non-religious university like Vanderbilt to impose such a standard is galling.
All-comers supporters also claim that they are forwarding the cause of “diversity,” when they are in fact doing damage to the American tradition of pluralism. Part of the greatness of our country is the fact that religious groups at war with each other overseas manage to share streets or even buildings in America. Groups that hold irreconcilable ideas about God nevertheless cooperate in community institutions. Pluralism is religious toleration as Americans have traditionally practiced it, and it is the reason that no country can compare to the United States in its peaceful multiplicity of religious groups. Yet when Vanderbilt passed its modified all-comers policy, 13 religious groups, including ones associated with such exotic faiths as Catholicism and Lutheranism, determined that complying with the policy could not be reconciled with their religious beliefs. This looks a lot more like a power play (“believe what we say, or get out!”) than it does a movement to increase “diversity” on campus.
States are awakening to the dangers that “all-comers” policies pose. Ohio has already passed a law preventing its public universities from adopting such policies, and Tennessee is currently considering one. Governor McDonnell should sign this bill and act to safeguard the right of religious and political groups on campus to conduct themselves in accordance with the long tradition of American religious and political freedom.
Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).