Vanderbilt University’s Board of Trust met on April 20 within the context of local and national criticism following the institution’s decision which numerous Christian faith groups consider discriminatory. The new policy, which prohibits belief-based student organizations from requiring that their leaders share the group’s beliefs, has sent the organization Vanderbilt Catholic off campus. In addition, the organization has been asked to not use Vanderbilt’s name anymore. Since then, eleven student organizations have defied the ban since September 2011. Vanderbilt, which is based in Nashville, Tennessee, even defied 23 members of the state legislature who asked the university to reverse its policy. Tennessee state legislators are working to pass House Bill 3576 to ban policies like Vanderbilt’s at public universities in the state, and perhaps also private universities such as Vanderbilt.
Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) and 22 other Republican members of the state house addressed a letter to Vanderbilt’s trustees asking for a reconsideration of the policy. Congressman Dunn wrote, “We acknowledge that private institutions such as Vanderbilt University have the freedom to establish its associations and maintain the integrity of its institutional mission.” Dunn also wrote, “But the state has a right not to subsidize any part of the operations of those organizations, like Vanderbilt University that engage in unequal treatment of individuals and organizations, the effect of which is religious discrimination.”
Responding to the name change ordered by Vanderbilt, the chaplain of Vanderbilt Catholic said that the university may not have a legal basis for its demand. “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 Vanderbilt Catholic. “Technically and legally, if we wanted to push the issue, I doubt that the university could keep us from that,” Fr. Baker said. He added that group may switch to a name incorporating the phrase “at Vanderbilt,” which would “certainly” be acceptable. Fr. Baker has criticized Vanderbilt’s demand for a name change in of itself a form of unconstitutional discrimination.
Vanderbilt University spokesperson Beth Fortune told Fox News that student 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.” Under the policy, any student regardless of religious affiliation must be considered potentially eligible for offices in a registered student organization. Most student religious groups do not receive funding from the university.
Groups such as Vanderbilt Catholic would therefore be compelled to allow non-Catholics to serve in leadership positions. Vanderbilt Catholic chose to forfeit its status as a registered group, which would require a new name. For his part, Fr. Baker said Vanderbilt seems to be focusing on small details, while “glossing over” the “fundamental issues” in the situation such as students' religious freedom.
“This whole policy,” said Fr. Baker, “is detrimental to the mission of a university. But Vanderbilt seems intent on going down this path.” He added, “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.” The chaplain continued, “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 and released a statement that said it could not in good faith comply with Vanderbilt’s requirement that all registered student groups must have open membership and leadership policies, regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation and religion. “Each of our 11 organizations is a faith-based group dedicated to sharing the light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ on campus. As such, we simply cannot allow those who do not share our faith to lead our ministries, as Vanderbilt now demands,” the release said.
In an email, Vanderbilt spokesperson Fortune wrote, "All registered student groups at Vanderbilt must be open to all students, and members in good standing must have the opportunity to seek leadership positions, and we stand behind this policy." Fortune said, "Vanderbilt trusts our students to decide who among those seeking office are chosen for those positions. The university does not dictate who can and cannot be chosen."
While the Vanderbilt board of trustees elected four new members on April 20, no word emerged about Vanderbilt Catholic nor about the Solidarity group's non-compliant charter submissions. Fr. Baker has urged the public to pray for Vanderbilt’s officials, and to exhibit love and charity. According to the priest, a convert from the Episcopal Church, Vanderbilt Catholic has “gotten a lot of supportive comments from people who certainly aren't Catholic or even particularly religious,” who see the denial of religious freedom as a loss for the elite institution. “I don't think you have to be religious to see what is wrong with this,” the priest said.