Freedom under fire at Vanderbilt University

Posted: Oct 06, 2011 12:01 AM

A Vanderbilt University policy prohibiting “discrimination on its campus against anyone because of sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression” is drawing national attention because of the way it’s being used to discriminate against religious groups.

For example, at least four “Christian student organizations at Vanderbilt University have been put on ‘provisional status’ for saying that the leaders of each of their respective groups are required to submit to their group's religious beliefs.” One of these groups, the Christian Legal Society, was informed via email from Vanderbilt’s Office of Religious Life that the group is not allowed to “preclude someone from a leadership position based on religious belief. Only performance-based criteria may be used.”

The email to the CLS chapter on Vanderbilt’s campus gets to the heart of the matter by demonstrating how the misapplication of the nondiscrimination policy is actually discriminatory.

In other words, the Vanderbilt policy ubiquitously put in place to prevent institutional discrimination is now being used to tell campus-recognized religious groups that can’t distinguish between practitioners of their religion and non-practitioners of their religion when choosing leaders.

If we take this ridiculous application of the nondiscrimination policies to their broadest and most obvious conclusions, we can only concur with the American Family Association for pointing out that such a policy creates a scenario where “an atheist could lead a Christian group, a man a woman's group, a Jew a Muslim group or vice versa.”

Sadly, this misapplication of a nondiscrimination policy is not without its supporters. Writing for the Tennessean, Ted Rayburn contends “Vanderbilt’s decision to prevent discriminatory practices being carried out in its name is the right thing to do.” His basis for this contention rests, in part, on the fact that the U.S. Supreme Court “last year affirmed the University of California Hastings School of the Law’s refusal to officially recognize the Christian Legal Society unless the group allowed all students to join regardless of beliefs.”

But with the Hastings decision we have to keep in mind the following factors: (1) the policy at issue in that case is different in key respects from what is at issue at Vanderbilt (‘all-comers’ versus nondiscrimination on certain grounds); (2) that the SCT was merely ruling on its constitutional permissibility, not its policy virtues; and (3) the SCT certainly was not recommending that Hastings’ extremely unusual policy was obligatory or even to be commended to other schools for implementation (a common misconception).

In the end, what is ultimately at stake here are the God-given rights to freedom of speech and religion. With these, of course, is the freedom of association, all of which are facing a frontal assault from the misapplication of policies like those we’re currently seeing at Vanderbilt University.