Vanderbilt to religious groups: No beliefs allowed

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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Pity the modern college administrator — it must be painful to be so politically correct that you’re forced to make embarrassing and nonsensical decisions.

That’s what Vanderbilt University has done this fall by telling the Christian Legal Society (CLS) that if it wants to be equal to other groups on campus, it can’t require its own leaders to have any Christian beliefs. Twenty-three members of Congress, along with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work), are pointing out that this makes no sense at all.

CLS isn’t the only victim of Vanderbilt’s bizarre regime of political correctness. It’s been reported that a dozen groups, five of them religious, have had recognition of their constitutions “deferred” because they require their members or leaders to actually believe in the purpose of the group.

In the case of Vanderbilt’s CLS chapter, the Rev. Gretchen Person, interim director of the Office of Religious Life, wrote that “Vanderbilt’s policies do not allow any student organization to preclude someone from a leadership position based on religious belief.” This was news to CLS, which had always required that before without any trouble.

Even more absurdly, Rev. Person objected to CLS’s requirement that leaders “lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at Chapter meetings” because “[t]his would seem to indicate that officers are expected to hold certain beliefs.” The horror!

Nobody should be surprised that religious groups, on or off campus, prefer to be led by people who share their faith. Demanding that a religious student group not ask its leaders to share the beliefs of the group serves no one. Who benefits when nonbelievers have the right to lead campus religious groups? Certainly not the students who attend the group.

Indeed, the only people potentially benefited by such rules are those who wish to destroy minority religious groups. For instance, imagine that CLS has 10 members, but there is a group of 20 students who don’t like CLS’s message. Under Vanderbilt’s rules, these 20 students could join the group, vote themselves into office, and then hijack or disband the group altogether.

The same would go for political groups at Vanderbilt — don’t you think the College Democrats might like to get rid of the College Republicans and vice versa? A conservative group at Central Michigan University narrowly avoided this very problem back in 2007 only when the college wised up to the problem with its nondiscrimination policy — a policy just like the one Vanderbilt seems to have recently discovered. CLS says that it’s worried about this very thing.

Now imagine what would happen were a Muslim group to use Vanderbilt’s rule to do this to a Jewish group on campus, or vice versa. It’s hard to overstate how ugly that could get.

Our nation’s tradition of religious pluralism means that Americans are free to join any church, synagogue or mosque they like. If they don’t like any of them, they are free to start their own. But a Catholic priest doesn’t have the right to march into a Jewish synagogue and demand that it consider him for rabbi based purely on his superior knowledge of the Bible or his great fundraising resume.

It’s true that belief doesn’t really matter when it comes to, say, the Vanderbilt Golf Club or Vanderbilt Pre-Dental Society. There’s no reason such clubs need to make decisions based on a member’s religion or political beliefs. But belief couldn’t possibly matter more for religious or political groups. If Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were a Vanderbilt student, the college would insist that Christians United for Israel at Vanderbilt make him eligible to lead the group.

Nondiscrimination policies are both good to have and legally required on virtually all campuses, public and private. But avoiding invidious discrimination doesn’t mean that you have to brainlessly insist that someone’s religious or political beliefs should never matter. You can lead a Christian group, Bible study or worship service (as CLS requires), regardless of your race or ethnicity. But you can’t do it with any effectiveness if you’re not a Christian, and any number of politically correct platitudes will not change that.

Robert Shibley is Senior Vice President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.