Christian student organizations at Vanderbilt University may be forced to go underground or meet in secret after university officials doubled down on a policy that bans student religious groups from requiring their leaders to hold specific beliefs, according to a law professor at the university.
Vanderbilt said their nondiscrimination policy ensure that campus groups are open to all students. But opponents said the ban restricts their freedom of speech and could force some nationally-known groups off campus.
“There are people on campus who are very threatened by the idea of religious freedom and they would like to create an environment where no one hurts anyone else’s feelings – unless it’s Christians,” said Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt law professor and the advisor to the Christian Legal Society.
The Christian Legal Society is one of four campus groups – including the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Beta Upsilon Chi and Graduate Student Fellowship – that are currently in violation of the policy.
Swain told Fox News & Commentary that all four groups could lose their standing as registered student organizations.
“This political correctness is running amuck on campus and its constraining one group – and that group tends to be conservatives,” Swain said. “They will be forced to either accept the university’s policy or leave campus by the end of the academic year. They are in limbo.”
Vanderbilt University launched a review of the charters and constitutions of all student organizations last year after a complaint was filed against a Christian fraternity, said Beth Fortune, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor of public affairs.
Fortune said the university determined the Christian fraternity had discriminated against a student based on sexual orientation.
“Our nondiscrimination policy applies equally to all registered student organizations,” Fortune said. “We’re simply saying if you are going to be a registered student organization and use the Vanderbilt name and university funding, and have the privileges afforded a registered student organization, then you need to comply with our nondiscrimination policy.”
Swain said what is happening to Christian students at Vanderbilt is scary, accusing the university of bullying people of faith.
Swain said the university forced the Christian Legal Society to remove Bible verses and the words “Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior” from their constitution.
“We tried to work with the university,” she said. “We made numerous compromises; even taking out the faith statement about Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior.”
But Swain said they drew a line in the sand when Vanderbilt “said that Christian leaders could not be asked to lead Bible study or worship.”
“That’s a key function of a Christian leader in a Christian organization,” she said.
Fortune denied the university was going after Christians.
“We don’t see that we are targeting Christians or religious organizations,” she said. “It is our hope and our desire and our goal to work with every registered student organization that they can come into compliance.”
The university held a town hall meeting Tuesday to discuss the policy. It was packed with students opposed to the crackdown on religious freedom.
“We want to be able to elect our leaders based on our beliefs,” former Vanderbilt student body president Joseph Williams said in a report published in The Tennessean.
A Chinese student who attends an underground church in his home country appealed to the university for answers on what would happen if he joined a campus group in violation of the policy. Swain said the student shared what it was like belonging to an underground church.
“He asked the university what would happen if the Christian student groups were forced to meet secretly,” Swain said. “The provost joked, ‘We won’t send you to Duke.’”
Fortune said unregistered student groups will not be banned from campus.
“They are allowed to exist and freely assemble,” she said. “But they would not be a registered student organization.”
The Tennessean reported that during the town hall gathering Provost Richard McCarty said the university would not back down from its policy. He explained that their policy allows students to vote for whomever they like – they just can’t have written rules that would ban students from running for office if they don’t hold specific beliefs.
So why not just vote for people who share your beliefs?
Swain said that argument doesn’t hold water.
“This encourages students to engage in deception and infiltration and it takes away their rights to be with like-minded people,” she said. “It’s very easy for people to conceal their beliefs and if the wrong person is elected and starts disrupting the organization, there’s nothing that can be done other than to dissolve the organization and start over the following year.
As it now stands, the organization Swain advises, along with the other three groups have a choice – they can either accept the university’s crackdown on religion – or leave the campus by the end of the academic year.
“I think we should stand strong on principle,” Swain said. “We need leaders who understand the purpose of an organization and who are passionate and are willing to fight for a set of values and principles.”