Religious Discrimination at Vanderbilt, Part 4:
Why Is the Vanderbilt Administration
Ignoring Nationwide Appeals to
Reconsider Its Religious Discrimination Policy?

February 18, 2012

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 fourth of 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?

Part 3: Is the Vanderbilt University Administration Disseminating Misinformation about ItsPolicies to Repress Christian Organizations on Campus?

Breaking NewsVanderbilt University is now targeting the Baptist Collegiate Ministry on the Vanderbilt campus. The Vanderbilt BCM has been told if they even require that their leaders have “faith,” then it is discriminatory. See the story in Baptist Press. We plead with all Baptists and Christians to stand up against the Vanderbilt administration’s discrimination against Christians.

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 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 why these new policies at Vanderbilt violate the First Amendment rights of their students, and the third article enumerated five areas that the Vanderbilt administration has misrepresented these new rules to the public.

The protests of the student groups against this new policy were detailed in each of these articles. What has been the response of Christian leaders around the country? With one voice, Christians from a wide array of denominations and perspectives have protested the new policy at Vanderbilt and called for removing it:

  • Robert Shibley, Senior Vice President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, wrote a scathing letter to Vanderbilt Chancellor Zeppos and other university administrators September 21, 2011, documenting in very specific detail the institution’s interaction with the Christian Legal Society and calling for changes in the new institutional policies.

  • Twenty-three members of Congress wrote the Vanderbilt chancellor a letter of protest October 26, 2011, about the university’s abridgement of its students’ religious liberties, including the following (as reported in Catholic news outlet EWTN):

  • “Religious student groups form around specific beliefs. Selecting leaders that best represent a student organization’s mission is not discrimination; it is common sense. Religious groups must be allowed to select leaders that share the group’s core religious beliefs in order to maintain their religious identities and carry out their primary functions.”

  • Nationally known columnist George Will wrote an article in the Washington Post November 2, 2011, entitled “Conformity for Diversity’s Sake,” protesting the Vanderbilt decision, noting:

  • “Unfortunately, in the name of tolerance, what is tolerable is being defined ever more narrowly. . . . Vanderbilt’s policy, formulated in the name of enlarging rights, is another skirmish in the progressives’ struggle to deny more and more social entities the right to deviate from government promoted homogeneity of belief. Such compulsory conformity is, of course, enforced in the name of diversity.”

  • Richard Land, President of the Southern Baptist Convention Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission; Leigh Anderson, President of the American Association of Evangelicals, and Anthony R. Picarello, Jr., General Counsel to the United States Council of Catholic Bishops, wrote a letter of protest November 8, 2011, to the Vanderbilt Board of Trust asking that the new policy be reconsidered.

  • David French, General Counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, wrote a lengthy letter November 9, 2011, to the Vanderbilt Board of Trust patiently recounting the legal issues involved in the university’s decision and recounting a number of voices protesting the decision.

  • Six nationally known distinguished law professors (from the University of Virginia, University of Missouri, Notre Dame, Stanford, and University of St. Thomas law schools) wrote a letter to the Vanderbilt chancellor and Board of Trust, patiently explaining that the new Vanderbilt policy was not required by law but did violate student constitutional rights.

  • Ben Chamness, resident Bishop in Nashville for the United Methodist Church, wrote an open letter of protest in The Tennessean February 2, 2012, to Chancellor Zeppos against the policy.

  • Fox News ran an interview with Vanderbilt alumnus Christian Lanier protesting the university’s new policies.

  • Nancy Hedrick, Executive Vice President of Communications for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, lamented the decision with this statement (as reported in World magazine):

  • “For over 40 years, we have worked with Vanderbilt’s coaches and student-athletes to foster positive character development and guidance for school and life. We are particularly grieved that Vanderbilt coaches and student-athletes who have benefited from their participation with FCA, will no longer have that full opportunity.”

  • InterVarsity Fellowship has had a national week of prayer for Vanderbilt, and has been lobbying Vanderbilt alumni and supporters to encourage Vanderbilt leaders to change the new discriminatory rule.

  • Jason Holt, national Executive Director of Beta Upsilon Chi, also protested the new rules in an opinion article in Fox News entitled “Why Is Vanderbilt Turning Hostile to Religion on Its Campus?”:

  • “If students are to flourish in a learning environment that values diversity, community and debate, college administrators must return to the nationwide practice of allowing an exemption in their religious nondiscrimination policy for religious organizations – organizations whose very reason for existence is to promote a particular religion. Policies like Vanderbilt’s irrationally discriminate against such groups, and fail to fulfill universities’ duty to protect students’ rights to associate and operate under their constitutionally-protected beliefs.”

Roman Catholics have joined in the protest with evangelicals. According to articles in Catholic Free Press, World News in, and the Catholic Diocese of Nashville website, Father John Sims Baker, the Catholic chaplain at Vanderbilt, wrote in a letter to the school’s chancellor that the policy “will restrict freedom and diversity in student life by jeopardizing authentic religious expression.” Bishop David R. Choby of the Nashville Catholic Diocese also wrote Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos asking that the university “not apply Vanderbilt’s laudatory nondiscrimination policy in this unfortunate manner.” The Vandy Catholic organization wrote a letter of protest to Vanderbilt Chancellor Zeppos October 26, 2011. A letter of protest from the Christian Legal Society sent a letter to Mark Dalton, the chair of the Vanderbilt’s board of trust, was signed by Anthony R. Picarello, General Counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. The Vanderbilt Catholic fellowship had a nine-day rosary novena leading up to the Vanderbilt board’s meeting November 10-12. A Vanderbilt University news story reported that one Catholic student said in the Vanderbilt town hall meeting on this issue, “I cannot separate my decision-making from my faith. I fall under an authority that is greater than Vanderbilt, and that is the Roman Catholic Church.”

What will you do about this issue? Don’t do nothing! If you want to take a stand for religious liberty against the one-sided administrators of Vanderbilt University, and support the Vanderbilt students seeking 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
  • 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
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
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
Office address:
Vanderbilt University
305 Kirkland Hall
2201 West End Avenue
Nashville, Tennessee 37240

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