(Source: The Tennessean)

Vanderbilt University administrators are writing down a nondiscrimination policy they claim has been in place for decades, the newest chapter in a monthslong debate that has pitted them against some student religious organizations.

Leaders of the Christian Legal Society, the Graduate Christian Fellowship, the Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Beta Upsilon Chi say they accept any student as a member, but they want a religious exemption so they can require their leaders to hold specific beliefs. Vanderbilt’s policy dictates that anyone who wants to join in any capacity should be welcome.

The religious groups are frustrated, they say, because the university has not produced a written version of the policy and has alternately called it a “nondiscrimination” and an “all-comers” policy, which they believe are two different things.

“The university has never given us a clear statement of what their interpretation of that policy is and what we have to do to comply with it,” said Tish Harrison Warren, campus minister for the Graduate Student Fellowship.

David Williams, general counsel and vice chancellor for university affairs, said the policy is properly labeled “all comers” because it goes beyond typical nondiscrimination policies, which ban only certain kinds of discrimination, such as gender or ethnicity.

The phrase comes from a July 2010 decision by the Supreme Court involving the Christian Legal Society and the Hastings College of the Law, part of the University of California system.

The law school banned the Christian Legal Society because it discriminated on the basis of sexuality and religion. The school said that the group had violated its all-comers policy. The court agreed.

Hastings did not have a written policy, but the two sides agreed in court that the school practiced an all-comers policy.

Williams said that Vanderbilt always practiced an all-comers policy, but the school does not have a written version of it.

“We are going to spend some time over the next couple of weeks working on a written statement,” he said.

Both sides stand by core beliefs

Justin Gunter, a Vanderbilt law school student and president of the school’s Christian Legal Society, said changing the group’s constitution makes no sense.

“We don’t think that what we are doing is wrong,” he said.

The conflict has led to claims that Vanderbilt is hostile to conservative Christians. David French, a Columbia, Tenn.-based senior counsel for the American Center for Law and Justice, is advising some of the groups that are on provisional status because he said he believes the policy harms them.

“You are talking about the zealous commitment to stop faith-based decision making,” he said. “Of course religious groups make their decisions based on religious beliefs. What else would they make decisions on?”

Charles Haynes, a senior scholar at the First Amendment Center on Vanderbilt’s campus, also said the policy is a bad idea because it could undermine the university’s commitment to freedom of religion. “In my view, such a policy promotes discrimination in the name of nondiscrimination,” he wrote in an email.

Provost Richard McCarty said that the university is not hostile to religious groups and that several of those groups are in good standing. He raised students’ ire at a January town hall meeting on the topic, where he questioned whether religious beliefs should apply to public decisions rather than private morality.

“We don’t want to have personal religious views to intrude on making good decisions on this campus,” he said at the meeting.

He said last week that he allows his faith to shape how he treats people, but he can’t require them to follow the teachings of his church. For example, he said, Catholics believe that only men can be ordained as clergy. But in his role as provost, he can’t ban female ministers from the campus.

If the conflict is not resolved by April, the four groups could lose their registered status, meaning no more university funds, not using Vanderbilt in their names and no recruiting at new student orientation events.

Both sides say they want to work things out. Neither wants to give up its core beliefs.

“If we start to weaken our nondiscrimination policy, people on this campus, who are your classmates, will suffer,” McCarty told about 200 students at the Jan. 31 town hall meeting. “We are not prepared to do that.”

Chaplain questions Greek system

More religious groups at Vanderbilt could run afoul of the all-comers policy.

Vandy Catholic, Vanderbilt Navigators, the Asian American Christian Fellowship and the Medical Christian Fellowship also require leaders to hold religious beliefs.

They are not on provisional status because the dean’s office did not find that their constitutions violated the policy.

However, their practice does. The Rev. John Sims Baker, chaplain of Vandy Catholic, said he could not imagine a situation in which a non-Catholic would be voted in as a leader of the group. In a November letter to Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, Baker said Vandy Catholic could not comply with the policy.

“The university is proposing unilaterally to decide who is qualified to represent the Catholic faith on campus,” Baker wrote.

He said later that his group hopes to reach a compromise but will wait to see the written policy.

Some who oppose the policy have pointed out that Vanderbilt’s fraternities and sororities are allowed to discriminate on the basis of gender.

“You cannot have an all-comers policy and have fraternities and sororities,” said Kim Colby, senior counsel of the national office of the Christian Legal Society.

The Rev. Mark Forrester of the campus’ Wesley/Canterbury Fellowship said there appears to be a double standard when it comes to campus Greek organizations. They are allowed to discriminate, he said, while religious groups are not.

“To me, the university is weighing in with a level of moral persuasion that most of us are in agreement with,” he said. “They are undermining this by allowing a Greek system that is the 900-pound gorilla around here.”

McCarty and Williams said Title IX of federal law, which addresses a variety of gender equity issues in schools, allows fraternities and sororities to be same-sex. McCarty said that Vanderbilt tries to ensure men and women have equal access, and that the all-comers policy applies to every area but gender for Greek organizations.

“That is a reasonable-approach tradition that is over 200 years old in this country,” McCarty said.

When groups re-register this year starting in mid-March, they’ll have to include more details about their practice. McCarty said the university won’t be able to address all the details of how the all-comers policy applies. Each group will be addressed on a case-by-case basis.

(Source: The Tennessean)


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