Vanderbilt exiles evangelical Christians, Catholics

Robert Shibley Senior Vice President, FIRE
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“You may hear the argument that Vanderbilt is discriminating against religious groups. I want to assure you that in my opinion, we are not.”

That’s what Vanderbilt University provost Richard McCarty told a “town hall” meeting of Vanderbilt students during the one event in which Vanderbilt deigned to answer students’ questions after passing a new “nondiscrimination” policy. We’re talking about a policy so absurd that Vanderbilt itself says that religious student groups can no longer even require that their leaders conduct Bible studies because it implies that they have to believe in the Bible.

Admittedly, it’s hard to believe that any university would do such a thing. That’s why a short documentary that the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) released today goes to Vanderbilt’s campus to talk to students and professors about what’s going on and how students are reacting. Along the way, FIRE talks to country music legend Larry Gatlin and Brookings scholar, author and gay-marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch to get their perspectives on why Vanderbilt is making the wrong decision about belief-based student groups.

What prompted this controversy? In a 2010 decision called Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Supreme Court ruled that public colleges may ban belief-based groups (religious and otherwise) from making decisions based on belief when choosing members and leaders.

If you’re wondering if that means that a university could force a Jewish group to keep as president a student who had converted to Islam after being elected, then the answer is yes. If you’re wondering if that means a university could allow a group of student Democrats to show up at a College Republicans meeting, elect themselves leaders, and then disband the group or issue embarrassing pronouncements in its name, the answer is also yes.

As dissenting Justice Samuel Alito wrote, the majority opinion authored by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg gave universities “a handy weapon for suppressing the speech of unpopular groups.” And there are few groups as unpopular on today’s campuses as evangelical Christian (or Catholic) groups.

Thirteen Christian groups have decided to become “unrecognized” groups at Vanderbilt this year because they can’t in good conscience pretend that they won’t make belief-based decisions about who’s going to lead their groups (or their Bible studies, for that matter). Vandy just released two documents explaining how these unrecognized groups must operate:

    • Student groups cannot have any members from other colleges or anywhere outside Vanderbilt, despite the fact that they’re no longer official groups and should be able to associate with whomever they want.
    • They may not use the Vanderbilt name. Perhaps Vanderbilt Catholic, the largest group to be driven away, could call itself “V*nd*rb*lt Catholic”?
    • In an odd twist of logic, the same groups must “state prominently in all print and online materials that [they are] not a registered student organization at Vanderbilt University.” That’s going to be awfully difficult without using the name “Vanderbilt.”
    • They may not use university email listservs, presumably because it would be too burdensome for Vanderbilt to let unrecognized groups use this circa 1986 technology.
    • They may not participate in registered student organization fairs, which is where most freshmen go to find out about groups on campus. Perhaps the groups could use a little fish symbol to indicate their meeting places?
    • Speaking of meeting places, they may reserve campus space, but the reservation “should not be of recurring nature (such as weekly or monthly meetings).”
    • They may not place flyers in the student centers. After all, we know that printed material can lead to violent revolution!

If Provost McCarty doesn’t believe that the sum total of these restrictions constitutes discrimination against certain religious groups, I’d hate to see what he does think is discriminatory.

CLS v. Martinez did not require public universities — and certainly not private universities like Vanderbilt — to adopt “accept all comers to all groups” policies like the one Vanderbilt is claiming to enact. (I say “claiming” because Vandy has decided that its powerful fraternities and sororities can go right on discriminating on the basis of sex.) This policy is purely a political decision on Vanderbilt’s part.

Even more creepily, though, it’s also a religious decision by Vanderbilt, a supposedly secular university. Vanderbilt is declaring that if your religious beliefs don’t agree with the university’s beliefs about how religion should work, you’re no longer to be treated equally on its campus. Simply put, Vanderbilt has decided that its own beliefs about religion are more important than its students’ beliefs. If I were a student in one of Vanderbilt’s surviving religious groups, I know what I’d be wondering: which one of my religious beliefs might be next up on the administration’s chopping block?

Robert Shibley is the senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).