Forced to leave campus for reasons of conscience, Vanderbilt University's Catholic student organization has now been ordered by the university to change its name.
“The name that's important is the name of Jesus Christ. I don't think they can take that name from us,” said Father John Sims Baker, chaplain of the group that has been told to stop calling itself Vanderbilt Catholic.
“Technically and legally, if we wanted to push the issue, I doubt that the university could keep us from that,” Fr. Baker told CNA on April 12.
He indicated that the group could also switch to a name incorporating the phrase “at Vanderbilt,” which would “certainly” be acceptable.
University spokesperson Beth Fortune told Fox News that students groups “who choose not to comply with the university’s nondiscrimination policy” thereby “forfeit the privileges associated with registered student organization status and that includes the use of the Vanderbilt name.”
Vanderbilt Catholic is leaving the campus over a dispute with the administration’s “non-discrimination” policy, a rule that Fr. Baker has criticized as a form of religious discrimination in itself.
Under the recently-confirmed policy, any student must be considered potentially eligible for offices in a registered student organization. Groups such as Vanderbilt Catholic would be forced to allow non-Catholics to serve in leadership positions.
Confronted with the new policy, Vanderbilt Catholic chose to forfeit its status as a registered group – a choice which will also require it to find a new name.
The university, Fr. Baker said, seemed to be focusing on small details of the situation, while “glossing over” the “fundamental issues” such as students' religious freedom.
“This whole policy,” the chaplain said, “is detrimental to the mission of a university. But Vanderbilt seems intent on going down this path.”
“It undermines so many of the kinds of things that Vanderbilt says it stands for: diversity of points of view, including religious expression, and that sort of thing.”
“They're saying that religious can only be tolerated, frankly, if you don't really take it seriously – if you say, 'Well, it doesn't really matter who leads our group, then religious can be tolerated.'”
“But if you say, 'No, who we are as Catholics really is fundamental to what this organization is about,' then you're not welcome on campus.”
While Vanderbilt Catholic has chosen to move and change its name, 11 other student religious groups – acting under the name “Vanderbilt Solidarity” – have simply refused to change their statutes. On April 9, they registered with the school while keeping their previous faith requirements.
Vanderbilt Catholic has not joined the campaign, and Fr. Baker is not aware of any official response from the university to the Solidarity group's non-compliant charter submissions.
The priest urged students, alumni, and other concerned observers to pray for university officials, and to maintain an attitude of love and charity in the course of the dispute.
Meanwhile, Fr. Baker said Vanderbilt Catholic has “gotten a lot of supportive comments from people who certainly aren't Catholic or even particularly religious,” who nonetheless see the denial of religious freedom as a loss for the school.
“I don't think you have to be religious to see what is wrong with this,” the priest observed.