Religious Discrimination at Vanderbilt, Part 3:
Is the Vanderbilt University Administration Disseminating
Misinformation about Its Policies to Repress
Christian Organizations on Campus?


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 third in a four-part series on the religious liberty crisis at Vanderbilt University. The previous articles are –

Part 1: Why Is Vanderbilt University Persecuting Its Christian Students

Part 2: Why Is Vanderbilt Violating the Constitutional Rights of Its Students?


In the first article of this series, we recounted how Vanderbilt University is denying its students their First Amendment Rights to freedom of religion, freedom of expression, and freedom of association by forcing Christian campus organizations off-campus unless they remove from their constitutions all Christian beliefs out or requirements for group leaders to hold Christian beliefs. Vanderbilt also denied requirements that leaders of Christian groups be expected to lead in Bible studies, prayer, or worship experiences. Christian groups had to make themselves completely vulnerable to hostile takeovers by anti-Christian groups to retain their registered student group status on the Vanderbilt campus. The second article detailed how these policies violate several First Amendment rights of these students.

In addition to the student protests, Christian groups of many denominations, as well as nondenominational groups, have called for this oppressive policy to be reversed. Some of the most outstanding law school professors and First Amendment rights specialists in the country have written pleading with the Vanderbilt administration to reconsider the policy with at least a modest compromise to allow the Christian groups to continue ministering on campus.

How has the Vanderbilt University administration responded to the furor created by their decision to oppress Christian student groups on its campus? Unfortunately, the Vanderbilt administration has responded with a misinformation campaign to confuse and muddle the issues. Vanderbilt officials have been purveying a series of disingenuous misrepresentations of the truth in defending the policy. In the town hall meeting with students, some Vanderbilt administrators even stooped to compare these Christian groups on campus to racist segregationists (see stories in Fox News and  The Tennessean). This is uncalled for irresponsible language by administrators who should know better. But that is just the beginning of the misinformation campaign. There are at least five major misrepresentations being promulgated by the Vanderbilt administration, which are described in the paragraphs which follow.

The first misrepresentation by the Vanderbilt administration is its claim that its institutional policy is an “all comers” policy – that is, its “nondiscrimination” policy involves every employment opportunity, student organization, athletic program, scholarship, loan program, and any student activity on campus. In fact, in an unsigned institutional public statement entitled “Statement on Non-discrimination Policy and Student Groups,” dated September 27, 2011, the actual Vanderbilt “nondiscrimination policy” to which it is linked in this statement is not a policy relating to student activities, but is an employment policy posted in the Human Resources part of its website. Student organizations and their officers are not employees of the university, so this policy obviously does not apply to student organizations.

However, perhaps the statement was intended to be linked to the revised Vanderbilt Student Handbook, which makes the bold statement that “Vanderbilt University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information in its administration of educational policies, programs, or activities; admissions policies; scholarship and loan programs; athletic or other University-administered programs; or employment. In addition, the University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression consistent with the University’s nondiscrimination policy.”

In addition to this grandiose statement in the Student Handbook (which is not true, as will be pointed out later), other school officials keep insisting that the school has a completely open “all comers” policy in all its student organizations. This is patently false. David Williams, Vanderbilt General Counsel and Vice Chancellor for University Affairs, has admitted publically that Vanderbilt has no written “all comers” policy (quoted in a recent article in The Tennessean). Still, Vanderbilt officials point to the court case CLS vs. Martinez, which advocated an open membership “all comers” policy. This action shows how desperately the Vanderbilt administration is grasping at straws trying to find anything to justify its action in the face of almost universal public outcry. Unfortunately, the Vanderbilt administration does not seem to realize that the legal case on which the “all comers” language was taken, CLS vs. Martinez, requires open membership in ALL campus organizations, not just religiously oriented organizations. Yet Vanderbilt administrators keep reiterating this claim that they have an “all comers” policy. In an email in January 2012 to all Vanderbilt faculty and students, (as reported in World magazine and copied completely in The Connecticut Political Reporter), Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos insisted that all student organizations must be open to “everyone.” Likewise, as reported in Fox News, Beth Fortune, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor of public affairs, insisted, “Our nondiscrimination policy applies equally to all registered student organizations.”

Are Zeppos and Fortune telling the truth? Is the Student Handbook policy universally applied to all student organizations, educational policies, programs, activities, admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs, athletic programs, other university-administered programs, or employment” Are all these open to “everyone” and “all comers” regardless of “race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information”? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!! The absurdity of the Vanderbilt administration’s claims is self-evident. It is a lie to insist that this policy is enforced universally throughout the Vanderbilt campus. If this policy were actually utilized in Vanderbilt’s employment practices, each job would be open to anyone, and students could take the place of professors and vice-chancellors for a considerable cost savings. If the “nondiscrimination” policy were practiced uniformly, the Vanderbilt football team would not discriminate against female players on the basis of their gender by not allowing them on the team. If the “nondiscrimination” policy were practiced uniformly, sororities and fraternities on the campus would not be allowed to discriminate because of gender. If the “nondiscrimination” policy were practiced uniformly and universally, the Vanderbilt athletic teams would have disabled players, blind players, and players over 40 years old, so they would not discriminate on the basis of athletic ability or age discrimination. If the “nondiscrimination” policy were enforced uniformly, Vanderbilt would have a student racial mix that is more in proportion with the American population, but since they don’t, Vanderbilt evidently discriminates on the basis of race.

If the non-discrimination policy were uniformly enforced, it would allow an anti-environmentalist to be elected as an officer of an environmental club, an anti-gay person as an officer of a pro-homosexual organization, a Christian as president of the Buddhist club, and a Muslim as president of the Jewish student’s association. If the “nondiscrimination” policy were universally enforced on the Vanderbilt campus, the Vanderbilt scholarship and loan programs would not discriminate against less intelligent students, against students who did not score as high as others on their ACT or SAT tests, or against students whose families have middle and upper incomes. But the truth is that Vanderbilt is an exclusive university that denies admission to thousands of applicants every year, so clearly they discriminate against these potential students, and its athletic teams, fraternities, sororities, scholarships, loans, and employment opportunities are all based on criteria that discriminate against others. No, Chancellor Zeppos, Vanderbilt is clearly NOT open to all! And, most clearly, Vanderbilt is now discriminating against its students only on the basis of their religious beliefs.

Rev. Mark Forrester, who ministers in the Vanderbilt Wesley/Canterbury Fellowship, accused the Vanderbilt administration of a double standard between its treatment of religious groups and other student groups. In particular, he noted that campus Greek organizations were permitted to discriminate on the basis of gender and other qualifications, whereas the Vanderbilt administration was not according such laxity in dealing with campus Christian organizations. Likewise, Kim Colby, Senior Counsel at the national office of the Christian Legal Society, pointed out that “You cannot have an all-comers policy and have fraternities and sororities.”  Provost Richard McCarty attempted to excuse the double standard with this amazingly nonsensical statement: “That is a reasonable-approach tradition that is over 200 years old in this country” (see these quotes in a recent Tennessean article). WAKE UP, PROVOST McCARTY!! CHRISTIAN ORGANIZATIONS HAVE ALSO BEEN MEETING FREELY ON AMERICAN CAMPUSES FOR 200 YEARS!!! So, to summarize, what has been demonstrated is the following: (a) Vanderbilt has no written “all comers” policy; (b) Vanderbilt does not practice an “all comers” policy consistently, equally, and uniformly across its student body, most obviously regarding its Greek organizations; and (c) religious groups on the Vanderbilt campus are being singled out prejudicially for enforcement of the unwritten “all comers” policy – they are the only groups being discriminated against with this so-called “nondiscrimination” policy.

The second misrepresentation by the Vanderbilt administration is its insistence that these new policies do not disallow Christian students from assembling together – that they would just lose the privilege of enjoying official university approval. For example, Beth Fortune, vice-chancellor for student affairs, told Fox News that unregistered student groups will not be banned from campus: “They are allowed to exist and freely assemble, but they would not be a registered student organization.” This is simply not true. Without registered organization status on campus, published reports in sources such as The Tennessean and World magazine state that without official recognition these groups would labor under considerable disadvantages: (a) they could not be included or listed in Vanderbilt publications; (b) they could not gain permission to meet in Vanderbilt buildings, use campus facilities, or operate on campus without denying their faith commitments; (c)  they could not receive student fee funding for their group that each of them paid to the school for student activity fees; (d) they could not include the word “Vanderbilt” in their publications, and (e) they cannot be introduced to new students in new student orientation. These enormous handicaps would obviously make any Christian group less viable. Vanderbilt Christian groups such as the Christian Legal Society and InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship are preparing to move off campus to continue their Christian activities, convinced that they will not be able to continue functioning as viable Christian groups on campus.

Like Christian students in communist China, Christian students at Vanderbilt could still meet in darkened dormitory rooms or secret off-campus locations to avoid being arrested by campus police. If you think that statement is too extreme, consider this: the Fox News story reported that in the town hall meeting a Chinese student who attends an underground church in his home country appealed to the university administrators at the meeting for answers on what would happen if he were a part of a campus Christian group that met secretly in violation of the policy. Provost Richard McCarty did not provide a straight answer, but instead made a sarcastic joke out of the student’s earnest question: “We won’t send you to Duke,” he said. It is hard to understand such hardness of heart and insensitivity to a student who comes out of such persecution in his own country. There can be no doubt that Christian groups who attempt to keep meeting on campus without the administration’s permission will effectively be driven off campus (see the next misrepresentation for more evidence of this claim).

The third misrepresentation by at least some Vanderbilt officials in multiple settings (including Provost Richard McCarty at the town hall meeting) is their claim that religious groups could elect whomever they wanted as leaders as long as anyone could be a part of the club and the group’s constitution did not require any particular beliefs to be elected. The administrators suggested that the religious groups were being uncooperative for not acceding to this demand for changes in their constitutions. However, as reported by Brant Bonetti in his article “Why I’m Wearing White” in Inside Vandy, in a meeting with the Interfaith Council on January 31, 2012, Vanderbilt Dean of Students Mark Bandas admitted that religious organizations could come under investigation if there was suspicion that members used religious criteria in voting for their leaders. Bonetti plays out the practical implications of this decision:

Let’s say that you’re a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and that you’re running for president of the organization. You win the election, but the student that you beat feels that he lost because members of the organization cast their votes based on his religious beliefs. According to Bandas, Vanderbilt would have grounds to investigate your organization for discrimination if the other student lodged a formal complaint. That hardly seems like business as usual to me.

 

So, according to the Dean of Students, if a student ran for office and felt that he or she were not elected because of their beliefs, they could still file charges against the club and Vanderbilt would close it down. Carol Swain, Vanderbilt law professor and sponsor of the Christian Legal Society group, pointed out the impracticality of such a rule to Fox News:

This encourages students to engage in deception and infiltration and it takes away their rights to be with like-minded people. It’s very easy for people to conceal their beliefs and if the wrong person is elected and starts disrupting the organization, there’s nothing that can be done other than to dissolve the organization and start over the following year.

 

In other words, atheists or homosexuals could intentionally deceive the group that they were devout evangelical Christians, or, with the “open membership” policy, bring in fifty militant friends into the meeting, and be voted into office in a hostile takeover, and then publicly endorse beliefs exactly opposed to the group’s beliefs, or simply so disrupt the group that it is eventually destroyed. A dedicated hardcore anti-Christian group of students could systematically destroy the fabric and purpose of every Christian group on campus one at a time. This is simply unworkable.

Furthermore, Vanderbilt will not permit religious organizations to expect their leaders to lead in normal Christian activities such as Bible studies, prayer, or worship, or even a requirement that officers hold Christian beliefs. In an email from Gretchen Person, Interim Director of the “Office of Religious Life” at Vanderbilt, (a title that now seems rather hollow), to the chapter president of the Christian Legal Society (also cited in the Christian Post), the Vanderbilt official stated that the group cannot “preclude someone from a leadership position based on religious belief. Only performance-based criteria may be used.” The email also said that the group cannot expect its officers to lead Bible studies, prayer or worship at chapter meetings– “This would seem to indicate that officers are expected to hold certain beliefs. Again, Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation/ qualification for officers,” the email said.

Joshua Charles, former President of the Beta Upsilon Chi chapter at the University of Kansas, also pointed out to The Blaze this how unworkable these new regulations are for Christian organizations:

It seems difficult to imagine a scenario in which any religious group could, without any infringement whatsoever, worship and practice freely if they cannot even make decisions on their own membership or leadership.  Groups are formed in order to advance causes, ideals, or something of the sort. But if the integrity of that group cannot be maintained, then neither can the causes or ideals for which it was founded in the first place.

 

Or, as one student put it very simply but compellingly in the town hall meeting, “You can’t lead me in my faith if you don’t share my faith” (cited in a Vanderbilt University news story).

Not only are these regulations unworkable, but they are also unconstitutional. The case for the Christian student organizations is further buttressed by a January 11, 2012 Supreme Court decision (Hosanna-Tabor vs. EEOC) that by a 9-0 ruling asserted the fundamental importance of governmental noninterference with the leadership standards of religious entities. Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority (unanimous) opinion, pointed out that “The interest of society in the enforcement of employment discrimination statutes is undoubtedly important. But so too is the interest of religious groups in choosing who will preach their beliefs, teach their faith, and carry out their mission” (cited in the Connecticut Political Reporter). Likewise, Justice Alito wrote in this ruling regarding religious association (as reported in Fox News) that “a religious body’s right to self-governance must include the ability to select, and to be selective about, those who will serve as the very ‘embodiment of its message.’” That is precisely the right that Vanderbilt is denying to its students.

The fourth misrepresentation by the Vanderbilt administration is that its policy of discriminating against religious groups is not new at all, but a longstanding policy that the university is just now catching up on enforcing in all areas. In fact, as Brant Bonetti pointed out in a column in Inside Vandy, and detailed in an article in Vanderbilt Hustler, the university deleted a prior policy on December 8, 2010, from its Student Handbook that had exempted religious organizations from some aspects of the “nondiscrimination” policy, specifically “the University does not limit freedom of religious association, does not require adherence to this principle by government agencies or external organizations that associate with, but are not controlled by, the University, and does not extend benefits beyond those provided under other policies of the University.” The title of the article in the Hustler says it all: “Change to Vanderbilt Policy Alters Protection for Religious Groups.” More specifically, the Vanderbilt student group that produced the website VanderbiltReligiousFreedom.com has posted side by side both the before-December 8th version of the Student Handbook and the after-December 8th version of the Student Handbook. The changes are manifestly obvious. Vanderbilt officials are simply not telling the truth when they insist that nothing has changed.

A fifth subterfuge promulgated by Vanderbilt’s administration is the suggestion that they must enforce this new version of the non-discrimination policy to protect Vanderbilt’s federal funding. Is this true? No. As Brant Bonetti reports in Inside Vandy,

This claim holds absolutely no weight. In a letter sent to the chancellor and the board of trust in December, six prominent law school professors, including the director of Stanford’s Constitutional Law Center, expressed their “collective opinion that no court decision, administrative regulation or federal or state statute requires Vanderbilt to prohibit religious student groups from requiring their leaders to share the groups’ religious beliefs.

 

Indeed, in this letter dated December 2, 2011, these six nationally known and distinguished law professors from some of the top law schools in the country patiently explain in detail to the Vanderbilt Chancellor and the Chairman of its Board of Trust the legalities of the situation, particularly that Vanderbilt’s new rules are not required by any law, and that it brings into question other constitutional protections. Indeed, even if this threat were real, since no other university in the nation has this policy, the federal government would have to defund all the schools in the country if it defunded Vanderbilt. So it simply isn’t true that Vanderbilt stands to lose any federal funding. Again we see a cynicism of the Vanderbilt administration in trying to throw any self-justification it can against the wall in hopes that something will stick. It won’t.

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. Please share this prayer request with your church and other believers. The more people who know about this crisis 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. I do, and I hope you will, also. (Just right click and copy and paste it).

  • 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
Vanderbilt University
305 Kirkland Hall
2201 West End Avenue
Nashville, Tennessee 37240

Nicholas S. Zeppos, Chancellor, Vanderbilt University
(615) 322-1813
nicholas.s.zeppos@Vanderbilt.Edu
Office Address:
Vanderbilt University
211 Kirkland Hall
2201 West End Avenue
Nashville, TN 37240

Richard McCarty, Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs
(615) 322-4757
richard.mccarty@vanderbilt.edu
Office address:
Vanderbilt University
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
(615) 322-8331
david.williams@vanderbilt.edu
Office address:
Vanderbilt University
305 Kirkland Hall
2201 West End Avenue
Nashville, Tennessee 37240


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