BLOGVanderbilt’s Mask Slips, Revealing Its Hostility to Christians

By Travis Barham Posted on: | April 25, 2012

MaskLast week, a brief e-mail to a small Christian organization collapsed the false front that Vanderbilt has erected over the past school year.  Vanderbilt has labored to concoct a new “nondiscrimination” policy that actually discriminates:  it prohibits Christian groups from selecting leaders that share their faith while it simultaneously allows Greek organizations to select leaders as they always have.  The whole time Vanderbilt has claimed that it is not hostile to religious students or to religious freedom.

Well, the façade has cracked.  Months ago, a small Christian organization tried to renew its recognized status, and it submitted its constitution, which included this sentence:

Criteria for officer selection will include level and quality of past involvement, personal commitment to Jesus Christ, commitment to the organization, and demonstrated leadership ability.

At the end of January, members of this group met with Vanderbilt administrators, who said that this constitution was fine and complied with the University’s policies.

Everything changed last week when the group learned that it would not be recognized unless it made one change to its constitution.  How did Vanderbilt want the group to change?  It must stop requiring leaders to have a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ.”  The University dictated that this ministry can only select leaders based on “level and quality of past involvement, commitment to the organization, and demonstrated leadership ability.”

Of course, Vanderbilt still claims to prize religious freedom, but actions speak louder than words.  It only makes sense for a ministry dedicated to sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to select leaders who have a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ.”  That is the only way it can accomplish its goal.  But to Vanderbilt, such common-sense criteria cannot be tolerated.  If a Christian ministry cannot have leaders who share a commitment to Christ, then religious freedom does not even exist in theory at Vanderbilt.

Over the past school year, many groups and individuals have seen through Vanderbilt’s public pose and warned about the new dangers to religious freedom on campus.  Commentators like George Will have sounded the alarm, as have members of Congress.  When Vanderbilt was thus thrust into the public light, Chancellor Zeppos could not coherently unveil the policy, and Vanderbilt administrators could hardly explain it at a town hall meeting.  And so, students from a coalition of religious organizations have started trumpeting the threats to their freedoms, while others have publicly announced that they cannot compromise their convictions.  Last week, the Tennessee Legislature joined the fray, threatening to cut off funding to Vanderbilt.

But now Vanderbilt has put the hostility to Christians inherent in its new policy on full display.  By requiring a Christian ministry to drop even a reference to “personal commitment to Jesus Christ” from its constitution, the University is forcing the group to choose between its place on campus and its convictions, and it is showing its disdain for even the most basic levels of religious freedom.  Sadly, it is growing increasingly clear that religious students who actually take their faith serious have no place on Vanderbilt’s campus.

Travis Barham

Legal Counsel

Travis C. Barham, Esq., serves as legal counsel for Alliance Defending Freedom, where he plays a key role with the ADF Center for Academic Freedom.

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