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Postmodern Vanderbilt

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

Alexander Solzhenitsyn once observed that what was taken from the East by force is now being relinquished by the West voluntarily. It is tough not to think of what Solzhenitsyn said nearly a quarter of a century ago as one observes recent developments at Vanderbilt University.

Without any outside pressure, Vanderbilt has freely chosen to strip its religious organizations of the right to require that their leaders share the group’s beliefs, goals and values. Carried to its full extent, it means an atheist could lead a Christian group, a Jew a Muslim group, or any number of strange possibilities.

The story began the way these stories always begin: A homosexual student joined a Christian organization that did not share his acceptance of homosexuality. When he was removed from the group, he complained that the group would not alter its membership criteria just for him. Instead of finding another organization, he filed a complaint that resulted in the investigation of hundreds of organizations.

That bears repeating: Rather than telling one student it would be easier to join a group of like-minded people, the university is investigating over 300 groups and threatening to shut down many of them unless they change their core religious practices and beliefs.

Among the groups threatened with shutdown is the Christian Legal Society (CLS). It committed the cardinal sin of including this language in its constitution. “Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings.” That sounds a lot like what Christian groups do. So, what exactly is the problem?

Reverend Gretchen Person – interim director of the Office of Religious Life at Vanderbilt – summarizes the problem as follows: “Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation (or) qualification for officers.” CLS has already amended its constitution in an effort to satisfy the Vanderbilt administration. It even removed a stated requirement that Student Coordinators “should strive to exemplify Christ-like qualities.” I mean, what if a homosexual wants to join the group and fears that exemplifying Christ-like qualities includes celibacy? We could not tolerate that kind of intolerance.

But Vanderbilt is not satisfied with the “progress” it has made in its investigation of hundreds of Christians in order to satisfy one person. It is now demanding that CLS drop its requirement that officers lead Bible studies, prayer and worship. I mean, what if a person wants to join, become an officer, and avoid doing the things everyone else has always done – like, for example, lead? Should we not accommodate him by changing standards of conduct for everyone so he can be a leader without leading?

Vanderbilt University has reached the point of telling leaders of a Christian organization that they can’t tell their leaders to lead the very activities Christians engage in - like having Bible studies and prayer meetings. Why on earth would they strip their students of core religious liberty? Get ready for the quote from the Vanderbilt administration: "We are committed to making our campus a welcoming environment for all of our students."

Well that explains everything. Letting Christian leaders lead Bible studies and prayer meetings would send a chilling effect across the entire campus. I mean, Vanderbilt is in Nashville, of all places. It’s a Mecca of secularism!

To make matters worse, CLS already allows group membership to be extended to anyone – even the gay dude who launched an investigation into hundreds of organizations because one of them wounded his inner child by withholding his daily affirmations. But CLS is still doing something unthinkable by actually holding its leaders to a different standard. And Vanderbilt has a problem with that requirement. They simply will not allow any group to have any core beliefs about anything even if the belief requirement is extended only to its officers.

Enter the Vanderbilt Honor Code. Vanderbilt requires its students to sign an honor code that says each student will conform to a certain set of behaviors in deference to a certain set of beliefs. In other words, Vanderbilt students are expected to hold a certain set of shared values. If they do not agree to accept those values, they are not welcomed into the Vanderbilt community.

Vanderbilt also has an honor council, which is responsible for enforcement of the honor code. A cursory examination of the application for membership on this council shows that it not only requires that its member share certain core beliefs but that its members are expected to play a leadership role in enforcing set standards predicated upon those set moral principles. Official university materials make it clear that leaders of the council are held to different (higher) standards of moral conduct.

Indeed, Vanderbilt administrators know that no group can survive without shared values.

Diversity does not hold people together. Commonality does. Vanderbilt’s administration is also well aware of the problems CLS experienced at Washburn University Law School. In that case, a student whose religious beliefs were contrary to the group was allowed to lead a Bible study. When CLS stopped him he complained. Washburn put CLS on “provisional status,” but reinstated the group after CLS sued.

It is worth noting that the 2010 Supreme Court case of CLS v. Martinez has absolutely nothing to do with the situation at Vanderbilt. Because Vanderbilt is a private university none of the First Amendment cases are on point. Besides, Martinez simply held that schools, which already had “all-comers” policies, could prevent Christian groups from imposing belief requirements. That did not mean they were compelled to do so.

Indeed, the Vanderbilt situation is unique. Here, the administration is stripping students of religious liberty for one reason and one reason only. It is the same reason a dog licks himself: Because he can.

The metaphor may be crude. But so is the raw display of authoritarianism at Vanderbilt University. Decent people can only turn their heads away from this ugly episode in the annals of self-righteous liberal hypocrisy. Educated donors should turn away from Vanderbilt altogether.

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