Vanderbilt policy to impact Baptist group

Baptist Press
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Posted: Feb 17, 2012 5:52 PM
Vanderbilt policy to impact Baptist group
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP) -- Leaders of the Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Vanderbilt University are determining how a new policy will affect the BCM ministry on campus.

On Jan. 31, the administration of Vanderbilt met with students to explain its enforcement of the university's non-discrimination policy and a new "all-comers" policy.

The all-comers policy means that any student at Vanderbilt is entitled to become a member and to seek a leadership position in any registered student organization on campus.

Thom Thornton, BCM director at Vanderbilt, said the BCM has had an "open door" philosophy on campus when it comes to students participating in their ministry. "We want to create an atmosphere where non-Christian students feel welcome," Thornton said. Students can then develop friendships and engage in conversations which can lead to witnessing opportunities, invitations to Bible studies and eventually to students accepting Christ, he continued.

The dilemma for the BCM and other organizations on campus is what criteria can be used to select leadership. The new policy states that student organizations cannot discriminate in membership or leadership, cannot have a statement of faith that they require leaders to sign, cannot have a faith prerequisite for leadership and cannot select leaders in a discriminatory manner, Thornton noted.

He said one administrator said that if faith was the only criterion for holding a leadership position, it would be discriminatory.

Thornton noted that while faith is a key element for BCM leaders, it is not the only criterion used.

The BCM currently uses a selection process for leadership in which Thornton appoints a selection committee that interviews all leadership applicants. After that process has occurred, the leaders are chosen.

Bill Choate, collegiate ministries coordinator for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, acknowledged that faith is one of the criteria used for selecting leaders at all BCM ministries in the state.

"If faith can't be one of the criteria, we have a major crisis," he observed.

"At this point we do not have enough clarification from the university to know what they are asking of us," Thornton said.

While most of the outcry to the policy has come from religious and Christian organizations on campus, the policy affects all organizations, the two BCM leaders noted.

Choate observed that the new policy is an over-reaction by Vanderbilt administrators to an earlier incident in which a Christian fraternity asked an openly gay member to resign. The young man later filed a discrimination complaint against the university.

As a result, the school "stepped up its discrimination policy and removed a statement in the student handbook that protected religious organizations and their right to elect leaders," he said.

"For months we thought the university would back away from this ridiculous position, but now it looks like they may not," Choate said.

"Part of our strategy is to be good citizens of the universities in which we minister," Choate said. "Vanderbilt may deny us that opportunity."

The BCM has been a part of a diverse community for 85 years at Vanderbilt, he added.

"It looks like the university wants to decrease diversity on campus," Choate concluded.

Thornton noted the BCM is trying to work with the university and be supportive of its non-discrimination policy. At the same time, Thornton said it is important to be able to select BCM leaders who support the vision and purpose of the organization.

"We can't compromise on that," Thornton said.

As it stood before the all-comers rule, the BCM was in compliance, Thornton said.

Four on-campus organizations had been cited for non-compliance -- the Christian Legal Society, Beta Upsilon Chi, Graduate Student Fellowship and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Campus organizations have until April 16 each year to complete Vanderbilt's documents to become a recognized group on campus.

Thornton said meetings will be taking place among its leadership to decide the next steps to take. Any action taken must receive approval from the local BCM board, he added. "Our desire is to be a recognized student organization at Vanderbilt," Thornton said, noting the BCM is the second oldest religious organization on the Vanderbilt campus.

"At the same time, we will hold to the integrity of our religious beliefs," Thornton promised.

Lonnie Wilkey is editor of the Baptist & Reflector (www.tnbaptist.org/BRNews.asp), newsjournal of the Tennessee Baptist Convention.

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