Dr. Steve Lemke is Provost, Professor of Philosophy and Ethics, and McFarland Chair of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. He also serves as Director of the Baptist Center for Theology and Ministry, and the Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology and Ministry.
This is the first of a four-part series on the crisis of religious freedom at Vanderbilt University. Tomorrow is the next article in the series: “Part 2: Why Is Vanderbilt Violating the Constitutional Rights of Its Students?”
Some years ago on a mission trip in St. Petersburg, Russia, the student group I was leading went into some of the public schools and hospitals in the area to visit with the Russian students and share their personal testimony of what Christ had done in their lives. As a person who grew up during the Cold War days, it was a stunning moment when it struck me that I did not have the freedom to do in public schools in my own country what we were freely doing in the public schools in this communist country. It was strange that we were experiencing greater religious liberty in this communist country than in our own country whose Constitution guarantees freedom of religion!
Let us go now to Vanderbilt University, which, as Matthew Franck points out in First Things, was founded by a Methodist bishop, and its first chancellor preached sermons in chapel to the early Vanderbilt students. However, the current Vanderbilt Administration has imposed a new regulation on its Christian student organizations which denies them the right to require affirmation of any Christian beliefs as a prerequisite for admission to their fellowship. Vanderbilt is evidently the first university in the nation to create and push such a repressive regulation. As a U. S. Constitutional Free Press headline described it so poignantly, this is “Vanderbilt University’s War on Religious Freedom.” Jason Hoyt, national Executive Director of the Beta Upsilon Chi Christian fraternity, described the situation this way in an opinion column in Fox News:
Once upon a time, American universities encouraged students to create community around common interests and protected the right of student organizations to operate in a manner consistent with their beliefs. But a rising tide of resistance to religious organizations on college campuses, allegedly aimed at reducing intolerance, ironically advances it, fostering an unwelcoming and hostile learning environment for many students and threatening the very existence of religious student organizations.
Under the guise of a “nondiscrimination” policy, this new policy at Vanderbilt discriminates against no one but Christian groups. As Leighton Watts, a member of the Christian Beta Upsilon Chi fraternity told the Tennesseean, “The Vanderbilt discrimination policy is directed against the Christian community.” Likewise, Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt law school professor who advises the Christian Legal Society, told the FRC Blog: “There are people on campus who are very threatened by the idea of religious freedom and they would like to create an environment where no one hurts anyone else’s feelings – unless it’s Christians.” (See the interview of Swain and a news account of the entire crisis at the CBN News story). If one doubts this claim about discriminating against Christian groups, consider this: in contrast to its policy about Christian organizations, Vanderbilt recently decided to formally recognize Wiccan (witchcraft) holidays (see Baptist Press report).
Let me be clear: Baptists support a broad nondiscrimination policy. We oppose discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or creed. The first American colony to allow other Christian denominations, as well as Jews, Muslims, and atheists, was the Baptist colony of Rhode Island. Roger Williams, the Baptist who had been driven out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony by the established Congregational church, stood for religious freedom, as have other Baptists through the years. John Leland played the key role in ensuring that the rights such as freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and freedom of assembly were included in the First Amendment. So we voice no opposition to a university allowing an atheist club, a Buddhist club, a homosexual organization, a Greek fraternity, or a Wiccan sorority. Students should have the right to organize themselves around areas of common interest. Unfortunately, what Vanderbilt has done is turn a nondiscrimination policy on its head. The new policies enable Vanderbilt to practice religious discrimination in the name of nondiscrimination. It has enforced its nondiscrimination rules unevenly – allowing discrimination exceptions in Greek organizations, but no longer in religious organizations. The new policies unfairly single out Christian campus organizations, and as such are discriminatory.
The background of the policy was that in Fall 2010 on the Vanderbilt campus, a member of the national Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi (BUX) “came out of the closet,” openly announced his homosexuality and his active engagement in a homosexual relationship. In light of this new information, the fraternity encouraged him to resign from its membership. The student then threatened Vanderbilt with a lawsuit (see Baptist Press story for a summary of the details).
We like to describe America as “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” but clearly that is not true on the Vanderbilt University campus. The Vanderbilt administration, shaking in its boots and obviously not “the home of the brave,” responded to the threatened lawsuit by cowering and caving in to pressure from the homosexual lobby, and imposed these new repressive regulations on Christian groups. More specifically, the Vanderbilt administration removed this protection of religious groups from its Student Handbook (prior to December 8, 2010): “In affirming its commitment to this principle [of non-discrimination], the University does not limit freedom of religious association and does not require adherence to this principle by government agencies or external organizations that associate with but are not controlled by the University.” The Vanderbilt administration zealously pored over the constitutions of all 380 student groups on campus (with special attention to Christian groups), pressuring the students to amend their group’s constitution to fit the university’s new “politically correct” rules, and threatening them with losing their registered student organization status and being kicked off the campus if they didn’t. Obviously, Vanderbilt no longer allows freedom of religious association. Farewell to “the land of the free”!
Though depicting this policy as a “nondiscrimination” policy, in fact, the Vanderbilt administration has discriminated by singling out only four Christian student groups for the stringent application of this rule – Beta Upsilon Chi, Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. These four organizations, which resisted the threats and bullying of the Vanderbilt administration, have been placed on “provisional” status and will be kicked off campus if they do not change their constitutions in a way satisfactory to Vanderbilt “thought police” by April 16, 2012. However, in addition to these four groups, according to a column in Inside Vandy, although some Christian groups had adjusted their constitutions after bullying and threats of expulsion from the campus by Vanderbilt officials, they joined in protesting this violation of First Amendment rights – including Vandy Catholic, the Baptist Collegiate Ministry, Navigators, CRU (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), the Asian-American Christian Fellowship, Bridges International, the Lutheran Student Fellowship, and the Medical Christian Fellowship. This video expresses the protest of Christian students in an appeal that any evangelical Christian will find compelling.
Five Christian organizations (Campus Crusade for Christ, the Navigators, Graduate Christian Fellowship, Bridges International, and Graduate Christian Fellowship) appealed to the Vanderbilt Board of Trust on November 8, 2011, with a respectful letter appealing for reconsideration of the offensive policies, including examples of how other universities (Ohio State University and the University of Florida) had policies that allowed for the religious freedom of its campus Christian organizations, but the agenda-driven Vanderbilt Board and administration evidently gave it no meaningful consideration. In fact, Provost Richard McCarty (quoted in a Fox News story and a Tennessean story) stated publicly that Vanderbilt “would not back down” from their policy. Furthermore, the Vanderbilt administrators in the town hall meeting gratuitously compared the Christian students’ concerns to those of racist segregationists. Ironically, those who espouse “tolerance” are all too often intolerant toward others, particularly Christians. These are not reasonable minds who can find a reasonable compromise, but agenda-driven minds who refuse to consider any views but their own. So much for tolerance and inclusiveness! As David Cartman, a Senior Counsel of the Alliance Defense Fund, said in response to the Vanderbilt situation and other discrimination against Christians at college campuses, “Rather than being wide open to all viewpoints, including some you may disagree with, [administrators] want you to agree with liberal orthodoxy just to maintain equal status on campus” (see Christian Post article).
Vanderbilt officials held a town hall meeting on January 31, 2012, in a venue chosen by the administration that accommodated comparatively few students, turning away hundreds of students, the overwhelming majority of whom were opposed to the new rule. According to published reports in the Tennessean and the City Paper, hundreds of the students who were turned away stood outside, wearing symbolic white shirts and singing “Don’t Stop Believing” as a protest, while some watched the meeting by streaming video in another classroom. A few students supporting the rules were draped in rainbow-colored flags, often a symbol for multicultural and homosexual causes. The Christian student groups had asked that a representative from the Christian Legal Society represent their views at the meeting, but the Vanderbilt administration denied this modest request. According to reports in the Nashville Scene and Fox News, former Vanderbilt student body president Joseph Williams spoke against the rule, and Vanderbilt football team quarterback Jordan Rodgers, a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, sparred with Vanderbilt officials in the meeting. Rodgers ultimately led a group of fellow students in a walkout from the meeting when he was not allowed to respond to statements by administrators. Students from the other Christian groups such as the Navigators, the Christian Legal Society, and the Medical Christian Fellowship were allowed to speak briefly against the new policy at the town hall meeting. For a more complete response from Christian students on the Vanderbilt campus, including news clips and highlights from the Vanderbilt town hall meeting over the new policies, see the website created by the Restore Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt student group — www.vanderbiltreligiousfreedom.com.
This is a sad day in America when citizens can be denied their First Amendment rights with impunity. If the Vanderbilt decision distresses you and you want to stand with and support the Vanderbilt students standing up to defend their religious liberties, here are some things you can do:
- Pray daily that God will intervene in the Vanderbilt situation. Share this prayer request with your church and other believers. The more people who know about this tragedy and are praying about it, the better.
- Utilize this “Pray for Vanderbilt Religious Freedom” picture on your Facebook page or other publications to help create greater awareness of the problem nationwide.
- Sign and fax this online petition from the Restore Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt student group (see http://vanderbiltreligiousfreedom.com).
- Email this suggested protest note from the American Family Association.
- Call, email, or write the following university officials who have played key roles in defending the new policy:
Mr. Mark F. Dalton, Chairman, Vanderbilt University Board of Trust
305 Kirkland Hall
2201 West End Avenue
Nashville, Tennessee 37240
Nicholas S. Zeppos, Chancellor, Vanderbilt University
211 Kirkland Hall
2201 West End Avenue
Nashville, TN 37240
Richard McCarty, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
205 Kirkland Hall
2201 West End Avenue
Nashville, TN 37240
David Williams II, Vice Chancellor for University Affairs, General Counsel and Secretary of the University
305 Kirkland Hall
2201 West End Avenue
Nashville, Tennessee 37240