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Christian Student Groups at Universities—Identity Versus Diversity

Blog post by Lauren Burson, Telios Law intern summer 2012

In an effort to demonstrate open-mindedness and be welcoming to all, our society sometimes takes tolerance to the extreme, essentially erasing diversity by bulldozing protective measures that would otherwise help to maintain a unique identity.

Over the course of the past year, Vanderbilt University has jeopardized the ability of clubs to protect the beliefs they stand for in an attempt to enforce fairness for all; and it also appears that the university has particularly targeted Christian student groups. Thirteen Christian student groups have been affected by Vanderbilt Administration’s policy new policy that religious groups could no longer “require their leaders to agree with the groups’ religious beliefs; expect their leaders to lead Bible studies, prayer, and worship; or ask leaders to step down if their religious beliefs change while in office.”1 Vanderbilt announced this policy on March 9, 2012. If the religious groups did not comply with Vanderbilt’s new policy, they would lose recognition.

After continually trying to reason with the Vanderbilt Administration about why this new policy would place an unreasonable burden on religious groups, one of the student groups, Vanderbilt Catholic, decided to leave campus rather than change their leadership requirements. St. Thomas More Society plans to follow a similar course of action. The remaining eleven Christian student groups submitted their requests for recognition without making the changes requested by the administration. These groups kept the faith requirements that have been approved in previous years and hope Vanderbilt will reconsider its policy. A state law was proposed that would have exempted student organizations from nondiscrimination policies. Despite being passed in both houses of the state legislature, it was vetoed by the governor.

Vanderbilt has defended its policy by referencing the “all-comers policy” that was upheld in the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez. In a 5-4 decision, the court validated University of California’s Hastings College of Law’s policy that denied official recognition to the Christian Legal Society because the organization would not allow as members those whose sexual behaviors violated the group’s core beliefs. Hastings cited this as a violation of the school’s non-discrimination policy. An all-comers policy requires all student groups to allow any student the opportunity to pursue membership or a leadership position. The CLS v. Martinez ruling led several colleges and universities to further scrutinize their non-discrimination policies, leading to crackdowns on religious group at other institutions besides Vanderbilt. It should be noted that the Supreme Court’s decision applies to public institutions, which receive government funding; Vanderbilt is a private university.

While the Vanderbilt Administration insists that it is applying this policy to all student groups, it specifically exempts single-sex organizations, including fraternities and sororities. It could be argued that fraternities and sororities discriminate based on gender. In addition, throughout the “rush” process that occurs at universities each year, many students are rejected and are not invited to join fraternities and sororities. These organizations are allowed to discriminate along any lines of any they want, whether popularity, appearance, or gender. And that is just the process for attaining membership to fraternities and sororities, let alone the selection of leaders. Other groups that are exempted on the basis of gender include singing groups and single-sex intramural sports teams. On the other hand, Christian student groups allow all students the opportunity for membership.

Not only is Vanderbilt’s policy not being applied equally to all clubs and school-affiliated organizations, but it also simply lacks common sense—it defeats the purpose of having clubs. A club is defined as “a group of persons organized for a social, literary, athletic, political, or other purpose”.2Christian student groups at Vanderbilt and other universities exist as an avenue for Christians and those interested in Christianity to bond with others who share similar values and to form a community within the larger university community. That is the very nature of what a club is and why universities have clubs, so students can connect with others who share similar interests and beliefs. A club typically has some sort of mission, and will engage in activities promoting specific goals to fulfill that mission.

A large part of shaping the agenda of a club and the direction it takes is up to those in leadership positions of the clubs. For example, in a Christian student group, leaders might decide how and when to hold worship gatherings, Bible studies, and community service projects. These leaders might be expected to lead the club in prayer, choose speakers for events, and represent the club to the larger community. Because these responsibilities are inherent in being a leader, it is logical that a club might choose to hold their leaders to higher standards than ordinary members. In the case of the Christian student groups at Vanderbilt (and other universities), these clubs required that their leaders affirm a statement of faith. And it is for this reason that Vanderbilt is not allowing these organizations to continue as recognized clubs unless they remove this requirement and open leadership positions to all members in good standing. This does not make sense. By forcing clubs (and this includes not just Christian student groups) to open their leadership positions to everyone, the essence and core beliefs of these clubs can become susceptible. It puts the identity of the club in danger. Someone who is not committed to the club’s cause could potentially come in and change the focus and direction of the club—and the very purpose of even having a club becomes vulnerable. It is understandable that club membership and attendance to club events should remain open to any student, but the leadership requirements should be left up to the club. If a student does not like the requirements a club places on a leader, then the answer is simple: don’t join the club.

Vanderbilt has two viable options if it is to escape critiques of religious discrimination. It either needs to apply its policy equally to clubs and organizations across the board, including fraternities and sororities, or it needs to recognize the virtue of what it means to be a club and allow clubs to preserve their identity by determining their own leadership requirements. The first option is not ideal but would enact the true equality that the proponents of Vanderbilt’s policy have sought to achieve. However, in a country that supports freedom of belief and encourages spirited debate, allowing clubs to maintain their uniqueness and adhere to their beliefs by choosing their leadership requirements would be more logical and would more effectively preserve the freedoms we have come to cherish. Only time will tell how the decisions made at Vanderbilt will affect policies at other colleges and universities.

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1http://clsnet.org/page.aspx?pid=784
2dictionary.com
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