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CULTURE DIGEST: Nondiscrimination policy threatens Vanderbilt Christian groups

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- A faculty adviser for the Christian Legal Society at Vanderbilt University said enforcement of a nondiscrimination policy has gone beyond political correctness and improperly threatens certain campus groups.

"I see it as part of a larger attack on religious freedom that's taking place across the country -- particularly when it comes to conservative groups," Carol Swain told Fox News.

The policy forbids discrimination against individuals based on sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression, but it also could allow an atheist to lead a Christian group, a man to lead a woman's group or a Jew to lead a Muslim group, the news network noted.

Last year a homosexual student complained after he was dismissed from a Christian fraternity, and Vanderbilt began a thorough review of more than 300 student organization to make sure all were in compliance with the nondiscrimination policy.

The university has asked about a dozen student groups, including five religious organizations, to comply with the policy or lose funding and facilities, The Tennessean reported Sept. 27.

Stephen Siao, president of the university's College Republicans, told the newspaper Vanderbilt is trying to distance itself from its "Southern, white, rich and religious" past and has "launched an assault on religious groups on campus." The school recently announced it would recognize official Wiccan holidays.

The Christian Legal Society chapter at Vanderbilt rewrote its bylaws to comply with the university's diversity policies, removing an expectation that student coordinators "should strive to exemplify Christ-like qualities." But the administration asked the group to go a step further and remove a requirement that the society's officers lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings.


Justin Gunter, president of Vanderbilt's Christian Legal Society, told Fox News he's drawing the line at the latest request.

"We come together to do things that Christians do together: pray and have Bible studies," Gunter said. "... At the point where they're saying we can't have Bible studies and prayer meetings as part of our constitution -- if we go beyond that, we're compromising the very identity of who we are as Christians and the very thing we believe as religious individuals."

Robert Shibley, a senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, told The Tennessean, "The message here is clear: Vanderbilt believes that its institutional ideological beliefs should take precedence over students' own beliefs or consciences, particularly when it comes to its students' attitudes toward sexual activity."

HEALTH CARE LANGUAGE PRESSURES RELIGIOUS UNIVERSITIES -- The president of the University of Notre Dame sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius requesting that she alter proposed health care overhaul language to allow religious universities to act within their moral bounds while providing health care coverage to students and employees.

"In their current form, these regulations would require us to offer our students sterilization procedures and prescription contraceptives, including pills that act after fertilization to induce abortions, and to offer such services in our employee health plans," John Jenkins wrote Sept. 28.


"This would compel Notre Dame to either pay for contraception and sterilization in violation of the Church's moral teaching, or to discontinue our employee and student health care plans in violation of the Church's social teaching. It is an impossible position," the letter said.

Religious employers are exempt from the requirement, but Jenkins noted that the proposed language includes a definition of a religious employer that is narrower than any conscience clause ever enacted in federal law and is instead taken from the narrowest state definition, found only in three states.

On behalf of Notre Dame and other Catholic colleges and universities, Jenkins requested that the definition be rewritten using the principles behind the Internal Revenue Service code.

"At its founding and throughout its history, our nation has exhibited a profound respect for the rights of conscience and for the work of religious organizations," Jenkins wrote. "I ask you to uphold and extend that proud, indispensable tradition by broadening the definition of religious employers and the scope of the exemption in these regulations."

FAMILY MEALS MAKE A DIFFERENCE -- Teenagers who regularly eat dinner with their parents are less likely to engage in risky behavior, according to a study by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University released Sept. 22.

"Our surveys have consistently found a relationship between children having frequent dinners with their parents and a decreased risk of their smoking, drinking or using other drugs, and that parental engagement fostered around the dinner table is one of the most potent tools to help parents raise healthy, drug-free children," CASA said. "Simply put: Frequent family dinners make a difference."


Compared to teenagers who have frequent family dinners -- defined in the study as five to seven per week -- those who have infrequent family dinners are almost four times more likely to use tobacco, more than twice as likely to use alcohol, two-and-a-half times more likely to use marijuana and nearly four times more likely to say they expect to try drugs in the future, according to the study, released Sept. 22.

"Family dinner is an ideal time to strengthen the quality of family relationships," CASA said. "Teens having frequent family dinners are more likely to report having excellent relationships with family members. As the quality of teens' relationships with their parents declines, their likelihood of using tobacco, alcohol and marijuana rises."

William Doherty, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, told ABC News that family meals are the strongest factor he has come across in any activity that families do.

"It really tops them all as a predictor and contributor of a wide range of positive behavior," Doherty, who did not participate in the study, said.

Family dinners, he said, provide teenagers with a sense of belonging as well as security and stability and facilitate communication between parents and children.

Packed schedules can inhibit frequent family dinners, but Doherty suggested starting with a Sunday night. "I recommend starting one a week," he said. "The more you do it, the better. One is better than zero."


He also recommended turning off the television, putting cell phones aside and focusing on positive communication, not nagging teenagers about their grades or other deficiencies.

Erin Roach is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.

Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press

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