Discrimination Versus Invidious Discrimination

Note: The Vanderbilt Administration is disallowing registered status to religious groups who discriminate on the basis of religious belief. Readers may find it helpful to read our FAQ to better understand the context for this post.

The term “discrimination” as it is commonly used has become a type of “scarlet letter” for our day. Vanderbilt’s expanded non-discrimination policy implies that religious groups who choose their student leaders based on religious criteria are practicing invidious or immoral discrimination. However, the administration has offered scant moral argument as to why using religious criteria to select leaders of a religious group is, in fact, a morally repugnant type of discrimination.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “discrimination” as “recognition and understanding of the difference between one thing and another.” By this definition, to discriminate is simply to make distinctions, a necessary and important aspect of daily life. The question we need to ask at Vanderbilt is “What kinds of discrimination constitute invidious or morally evil discrimination, and what kinds of discrimination do not?”

First, some discrimination is based on a realistic understanding of differences. Certainly, distinctions based in prejudice are invidious, but naming genuine differences is rational and honest discrimination. In the mid-nineties, a dear friend of our ministry was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease and became legally blind. When her driver’s license expired, she went to the DMV, where she informed the employees that she was legally blind and just wanted an updated ID. She was told, “We cannot test your eye-sight once you have a license because that is discrimination.”

Is not the whole purpose of licensing to discriminate against those who should and should not be driving? It is not invidious discrimination to say that our friend cannot safely drive. It is making a truthful distinction.  In the same way, claiming that someone who does not believe in the divinity of Jesus lacks the ability to lead a Christian prayer service with prayers “in the name of Jesus” or that a Christian cannot honestly profess the Muslim Shahada is not invidious discrimination.

Secondly, there is a difference between discrimination based on traits we are able to change versus those we cannot. There are strong moral arguments against discrimination based on race and sex, in part because these are relatively fixed identities. However, religious belief, unlike ethnicity, involves our will and is malleable.  While we do not control biological traits, we do have a say in our religious identity and practices. Consequently, every major Christian denomination in the world practices some form of discrimination, making “distinctions” when selecting elders, vestry members, deacons, or lay leaders. Implying that creedal discrimination in leadership selection is morally on par with racial discrimination insults ethnic minorities and belittles the civil rights movement.

The university has castigated religious groups with the epithet of “discrimination” without ever explaining how the common and historic practice of using religious criteria to select leaders for a religious organization constitutes invidious discrimination. In so doing they have removed protection for religious beliefs and practices from their policies (you can read more about that here) while claiming the moral high ground of resisting “discrimination.”

Our religious beliefs themselves compel us to condemn invidious discrimination in the strongest terms possible, but we fail to see how asking the leaders of a Christian organization to share the beliefs of the organization constitutes invidious discrimination. If the act of making choices based on religious criteria is considered morally repugnant by the administration, then it is the nature of religious belief and practice itself that they find offensive.  If this is their true position, then we ask them to admit this and explain why. Perhaps then we can truly begin an honest dialogue together.


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Vanderbilt’s Misstatement about Open Nominations

In a recent interview with Channel 5 news in Nashville, Beth Fortune, Vanderbilt’s Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs, argues that the policy under debate at Vanderbilt is not about religious freedom. Instead, she says it is about non-discrimination of any kind. She asserts that Vanderbilt’s new non-discrimination policy simply requires religious organizations to allow any student to run or be nominated for a leadership position, which she says does not infringe on the religious liberty of student organizations.

We have never taken issue with the university’s intent for their policy: eliminating discrimination on campus is an important, worthy endeavor. However, Fortune’s argument ignores the central objection raised by campus religious organizations: the policy has the effect, intended or not, of diminishing religious liberty on campus by placing significant constraints on the criteria groups can use to select leaders. If harming religious liberty is the result of the policy, it does not matter whether Vanderbilt intends to diminish religious liberty. Vanderbilt can unintentionally discriminate against religious groups by intentionally acting to remove discrimination on campus. To use an analogy, if citizens of a town object to the pollution produced by a paper manufacturing plant, it is not a sufficient answer to their objection if the plant owner simply claims over and over that his purpose is producing paper, not pollution.

Additionally, in the interview, Fortune states, “We’re not dictating at all who the leader should be, we’re just simply saying that everybody in good standing in that organization should have the ability to offer himself or herself for a leadership position.” If Fortune’s statement were true, then Graduate Christian Fellowship’s 2011 constitution would not have been rejected by Vanderbilt for non-compliance with its new policy. All Intervarsity groups at Vanderbilt have open nominations for officers. Graduate Christian Fellowship, Medical Christian Fellowship, Asian American Christian Fellowship, and many other student religious organizations being forced off campus by this policy would have no problem complying with the non-discrimination policy if all that were required of us was an open nomination process.

It is extremely important to distinguish between the ability to offer oneself for a leadership position and eligibility or qualification for that position. When our constitutions were rejected in May 2011, it was not because we prohibited students from being nominated for leadership (we did not prohibit this). It was because we had faith-based qualifications for leadership.

Furthermore, the university’s insistence that democratic process will remove any concerns stemming from the policy ignores the reality that Vanderbilt is deciding the criteria for who is eligible or qualified to serve in leadership of religious groups. As we wrote in our FAQ for this blog: “Even if we elect leaders, we want to be able to use doctrinal commitment as a criteria in that election process and to ensure that those leaders hold to our creed throughout the tenure of their leadership in our groups.” Fortune’s statement is misleading: Vanderbilt is not only requiring that we allow all students to be nominated but also that we change our standards for who is qualified to serve as a leader. This is our point of contention, for we are not willing to give up our ability to name our own creedal qualifications for leadership in our religious organization, an ability that is essential to preserving the religious identity, integrity, and message of our communities.

Students Seek to be Heard by Board of Trust

Watch the video below to hear concerns of students, faculty, and alumni about the expanded non-discrimination policy.

Below the video is a list of events students have organized this week. This is a truly student led movement! We have watched with wonder and gratitude as a powerful grass-roots student movement has grown up here at Vanderbilt. We’ve been consistently impressed with the passion, integrity, initiative, respect, humility, thoughtfulness, and unity that these Christian students at Vanderbilt have demonstrated.If you live in Nashville, tonight (Wednesday) at 9:30, there is an on-campus service to which you are invited.

Please be praying for all the events listed and for the Board of Trust meeting, which takes place this week. Please also be in prayer for the student spokespeople and organizational leaders who are organizing these events, fielding questions  from the media, and facing increased public scrutiny (all of this while taking finals) and for all students who are participating in these events.  Also, be in prayer for us as campus ministers. All of us, students, faculty, and campus ministers, have had a wearying, trying year. In this busy and important week, we need the guidance, wisdom, unity and renewal of the Holy Spirit. We want to see God glorified and would invite you to pray with us toward that end!

 
1. Today, students  are distributing 4,000 MP4 players to students, faculty, and staff from 10 locations on Vanderbilt’s campus. These Mp4 players feature a seven-minute video presenting the response of Vanderbilt students, faculty, staff, and alumni to the administration’s expanded non-discrimination policy.

2. Tonight (Wednesday) at 9:30 pm, students, faculty, alumni and concerned friends will be gathering for a prayer service at the Student Life Center Courtyard to worship and pray that God would bless Administrators and the Board of Trust with wisdom as well as to pray that God would prepare the hearts of those in the faith community to respond in a way that reflects Christ, no matter what the outcome.

3. Thursday, students have invited board members to a barbecue lunch in the Student Life Center Courtyard. Please pray that some board members would attend and that good conversations might be had between students and board members.

 

***If you would like to show your support***

SOCIAL Media
Please change your profile picture and banner back to the white cross and #wearevanderbilttoo, and please post about this week’s events and the issues surrounding them using #wearevanderbilttoo.

WEAR White
Whether you are at Sanctuary @ Vanderbilt, Lunch w/ Board of Trust, or going to class, please wear white starting Wednesday. To the public, it signifies that you are concerned about the decisions being made at this week’s Board of Trust meeting, and to other believers, it signifies that you are praying for them and the entire Body of Christ at Vanderbilt for strength and revival!

The possibility of pluralism — faith and diversity at Vanderbilt

Below is a piece written last fall by our own Intervarsity staff worker, Tish Warren. It was published in Vanderbilt’s student newspaper and received quite of lot of positive feedback. Early Next week, Tish will be commenting on the piece, sharing some reflections she has had on the topic since she originally wrote about it.

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The debate over Vanderbilt’s new religious life policy demonstrates how difficult it is to discuss faith without the conversation degrading into binary “us vs. them” categories — conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. nonreligious, tradition vs. individualism.  The more public the controversy, the greater the possibility of mutual demonization using these tired, increasingly irrelevant categories.

The issue presented by this policy change is whether Vanderbilt will allow student groups to ensure that their leaders share the core beliefs and purpose of the group.  This change came from the highest levels of Vanderbilt’s administration, not the Interim Director of Religious Life or the Dean of Students office. Several religious organizations, including Graduate Christian Fellowship, the ministry in which I serve, are on “provisional” status due to this policy.  Like virtually all campus religious groups, our membership is open to all students.  We merely ask that our leaders hold to our core doctrinal beliefs.

Couching this discussion as “the university vs. Christian students” is inaccurate, unhelpful, and allows the conversation to be caricatured and dismissed. Instead, this debate reflects a much more crucial question:  Do we want different communities with conflicting narratives and ideologies to be authentically represented on campus or not?

Vanderbilt’s chancellor and top leaders are in the difficult position of navigating this institution through the unpredictable currents of pluralism.  Because true diversity can be messy and contentious, the human tendency regarding pluralism is often to flatten differences and stamp out unpopular ideologies.   Irreconcilable ideologies produce conflict; conflict threatens peace.  However, the proper resolution is not to abrogate conflicting ideologies, but to learn to embody our robust particularities respectfully and intelligently.

The tragedy of removing some religious organizations from campus would not be merely the loss of religious liberty, an enormous and embarrassing loss indeed, but also the tacit admission by the administration that pluralism is not, in the end, a possibility.  It’s an admission that, at the end of the day, the university must ask student communities to surrender their particularities to guard against controversy and debate.

Our social responsibility in a diverse university is to protect and preserve ideas, not only one’s own ideas or popular ideas, but all ideas that are peacefully and thoughtfully expressed. I’ve seen this lived out beautifully these past months as students and campus chaplains, despite real differences in belief and practice, have met, dialogued and sought together to preserve liberty on campus for all student groups.  This is the promise of pluralism — that communities can have opposing ideologies, yet not silence one another, but instead learn to live as neighbors and, more radically, as friends.

This promise of principled pluralism is why I, an evangelical Christian, was glad the university granted greater religious freedom to Wiccan students by excusing them from class on their holidays. This is not because I think Christianity and Wicca are basically saying the same thing or equally true, but because I want Vanderbilt to be a place where student communities — not just individual students but students united around common belief — can authentically express their ideas and ideals.

A free marketplace of ideas is not a tidy, easy place to live.  Ideas and the practices that grow from them are powerful, with potential for good or harm.  But we trust our students to help find cures for cancers, create solutions for systemic injustice and environmental degradation, and preserve and cultivate the best of literature and culture. Can we not also trust them with powerful, at times opposing, moral and religious ideas?

As I’ve worked with leaders in Religious Life and the Office of the Dean of Students over recent months, I have been impressed by their professionalism and willingness to listen.  They have asked good, hard questions of the religious community and are seeking a way to allow all students on campus to live out their identities, which is a deeply challenging task.  I sincerely hope Vanderbilt’s decision makers will choose to protect religious communities and preserve robust pluralism.  For if students are not allowed to form peaceful communities on campus that preserve their most deeply held beliefs, practices and identities, then pluralism here has failed.  And if pluralism cannot be preserved in the university, how can it ever flourish in our broader global community?

Losing Protection of University Policies

This is the second part in our four part series explaining why we are keeping our doctrinal statement (or creed) in our constitution. Below we expand on the second point. The italicized section is what we posted last week.

Second, if we remove the belief requirements for leaders, we, as a community, would have no protection against further regulation of our beliefs and practices on campus. Without language in our constitution requiring leaders to affirm a particular religious belief, we lose protection of our right to freely exercise and express our beliefs on campus, because our constitution’s leadership requirements were the mechanism by which our beliefs and practices have been protected by former university policy. For example, if the university receives a complaint about what a religious group teaches or practices, and the university has approved a constitution that states what we expect leaders to believe and practice, then their policies protect us. Moving forward, there will be no written policy protecting religious beliefs or practices. In the end, functioning in an environment where our beliefs and practices are not protected by university policies puts all religious groups in a tenuous position.

A chief concern about the university’s new non-discrimination policy is that it is the tactical way of removing protection of beliefs and practices, especially unpopular ones, from university policies.

One of the questions we have asked ourselves is, “Why not find a way to select leaders who share our beliefs and then try remain on campus as long as possible?” With this strategy, we’d expect that some day our creed might conflict with the university’s creed and at that time we’d chose to leave rather than compromise our beliefs and/or practices.

There are two problems with this approach.

First, although we support campus religious groups who have found a way to abide by the university’s policy, we cannot in good conscience, given both the spirit and letter of the policy, find a way to select leaders who share our beliefs without using “religious criteria.”  We know that if we asked our student leaders to sign a document promising that they would not use doctrinal beliefs in their selection of new student leaders, we’d be asking them to sign something saying they are not doing something that they are actually doing. (To understand why elections do not solve this problem for us, click here and scroll down)

Second, this strategy presupposes that a ‘big enough’ issue for us to resist the policy has not already arisen. For us, the “big enough” issue is here – it is asking us to pick leaders without regard to their religious beliefs. This policy disallows a central practice of both InterVarsity and the Church. If we compromise on this, the temptation to keep compromising would be strong, and over time, we may subtly undermine the gospel both to avoid conflict with the university or to “correct” ourselves after being censured. And without the ability to disciple student leaders based on shared religious commitments, the slide into compromise could come quickly.

Deciding to keep our creed and being willing to become unregistered actually has provided us with some sense of relief. Though we expect to face different types of challenges, we’ll be able to authentically function and proclaim the gospel with a freedom that we would not have if we remain registered. If we compromise now, we’d be subject to the whims of any administrator that felt like we were departing from the creed of the secular university. Functioning in that environment would present risks we are not willing to take.

Update and Clarification on Application for Registration

Yesterday, Graduate Christian Fellowship submitted an application for renewal of registration. Our turning in an application for registration along with other student groups who have walked with us through this year has been called a “protest” move and, unfortunately, could be interpreted as an attempt by us to manipulate the university.  However, at least for the groups we represent, that isn’t the spirit with which we have submitted our application for 2012-2013 registered student organization status. After being on provisional status for a year, we submitted the best constitution we could, seeking to reflect the desire of the university that all students be allowed to be considered for student leader roles, while also maintaining our integrity as an organization. We intentionally invited further dialogue and relationship with the university. Our constitution retains faith-based requirements for leadership because we are a Christian organization. However, our cover letter to the university and our constitution were written from a posture of trying to live out who we authentically are (hopefully lovingly) and not primarily as a power move or protest. We wish the emerging conversation around groups’ decisions to resubmit their constitutions better reflected this distinction.

We included this cover letter with our application to register:

Dear Vanderbilt Office of Student Life,

Graduate Christian Fellowship appreciates your work on campus, and we want to continue the good relationship that we have enjoyed with Vanderbilt for decades. We have worked to be responsive to the direction and guidance of administrators in revising our constitution this year. As a good faith effort to work with the university, we would like to submit this new constitution and receive feedback on whether it is suitable or, if not, on what specific wording or phrasing causes concern.  However, we cannot in good conscience sign the current Officer and Adviser Affirmation Form as we currently understand it to be interpreted.  As a religious group whose very purpose is to proclaim Christ’s redemption of every area of human life, we will continue to select key leaders who share our beliefs and mission.  We would therefore be dishonest in affirming that we will comply with the new interpretation of the current non-discrimination policy.

 As part of our ongoing commitment to clear and open dialogue with the university, we respectfully submit an example of an addendum to the Officer and Adviser Affirmation Form that makes it a document we can sign and commit to.  We hope this will make it clear that we support Vanderbilt’s dedication to the principles of non-discrimination.  GCF fully supports these principles and affirms the value of every person as a unique bearer of the image of God regardless of race, gender or gender identity, religion, ethnicity, or sexual orientation and therefore affirms that every student is worthy of protection, dignity, respect, and inclusion as a voice in our community.  Nevertheless, we are unable to sign the Officer and Advisor Affirmation Form without the modifications we suggest, or similar changes that reflect the integral role of shared faith and mission in religious identity.

 As our letter states, we could not in good conscience sign the Officer/Adviser affirmation form honestly, so we also included the Officer and Adviser form with this qualification as an example of what we could sign:

*Qualification:Because in TitleVII Congress made clear that it is not discrimination for a religious organization to require its leaders to agree with its religious beliefs, a view which the Supreme Court has twice affirmed, in 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and in 1987 in Presiding Bishop v. Amos, this religious organization will continue to require, among its other stated criteria for leadership, that its leaders affirm agreement with the organization’s doctrinal statement and commitment to the organization’s stated purpose,as it has done for many years as a recognized Vanderbilt student organization. 

Preserving our Unique Religious Identity

First, we believe that requiring our leaders to affirm the beliefs of the faith community they lead helps preserve our group’s unique religious identity as well as the purpose and mission of our group. Christians and other religious communities have used creeds for thousands of years to define who they are as a community and to preserve the religious tradition they have inherited. To abandon this practice would be to abandon a fundamental practice of our faith tradition, one that keeps Christians across the ages connected as part of the same body of believers and same faith.

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We are often suspicious of creeds in contemporary American culture. We tend to think it is better to “think for ourselves” or to “follow your heart.” We think of creeds as dour, unquestioned dogma or, worse, as tools of indoctrination.  However, the reality is that we all live by beliefs that we’ve inherited and a particular set of assumptions and presuppositions. Each of us has been shaped by a tradition larger than us, whether that tradition is Christianity, American nationalism, post-Enlightenment individualism, materialism, consumerism, or some other system of belief.  Whether we acknowledges it or not, each of us lives out beliefs we’ve learned and internalized from a community outside of ourselves.

Christians of all languages and cultures have used creeds for millennia to map the boundaries of orthodoxy or “right belief.” We use creedal pronouncements because we believe that in Christ God has made known the fullness of revelation, which means our faith is inescapably historical and thus essentially creedal. If Christ did not become incarnate among the Jews, was not born of Virgin Mary, did not suffer under Pontius Pilate, was not raised on the third day, then there is no Christian faith. Therefore, it remains essential that we profess and teach the same core faith as Christians have for millenia.  We cannot treat Christ or Christianity merely like an empty vessel into which we can import the highest aspirations of our current culture.  In other words, we believe that we don’t make up what Christianity is. Instead, we inherit our faith from men and women who have followed Christ before us beginning with the apostles themselves.  Thus, our creeds are designed to preserve the faith of the church over time. As an illustration, think of a recipe for bread. Someone made bread and preserved that recipe either with a verbal or written “creed.” Although the use of creeds still allows for great diversity and variety, there are essentials outlined in the creed or recipe that must be preserved if bread is to be bread.  If you decide to use metal, glass, and plastic, instead of water, flour, and yeast, you may make something lovely, but you can’t call it bread.  Similarly, creeds outline the essential ingredients that make a Christian community a Christian community.

In order to preserve who we are over time and to preserve our purpose on campus, we must preserve our “deposit of faith.” And in order to preserve this deposit, our leaders must believe, teach, and confess the essential “ingredients” of Christianity. Christians find creeds so important to orthodox faith that believers have literally died to preserve our creeds. In light of that, leaving campus to preserve our basic creedal identity is clearly worth it! For a thorough and excellent explanation on the roles of creeds in faith communities from Yale Historian Jaroslav Pelikan, listen to this podcast: http://being.publicradio.org/programs/pelikan/

Why are we keeping our Creed in our Constitution?

Ten months ago, InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship was put on provisional status with Vanderbilt University. Since that time, the university has allowed us to function normally. However, unless we omit our requirement that student leaders affirm our Basis of Faith & Purpose Statement, the university has indicated that we will not be approved as a registered student group in the coming year. (You can read more about religious groups’ situation at Vanderbilt in the “History” section of this blog.)

So, why are we keeping our creed, or statement of beliefs, in our constitution?

Answers to that question are many. However, in general, there are four primary reasons why keeping our creed in our constitution is so important to us that, despite our great wish to remain an official part of Vanderbilt’s community, we are willing to move off campus in order to retain our creed.

First, we believe that requiring our leaders to affirm the beliefs of the faith community they lead helps preserve our group’s unique religious identity as well as the purpose and mission of our group. Christians and other religious communities have used creeds for thousands of years to define who they are as a community and to preserve the religious tradition they have inherited. To abandon this practice would be to abandon a fundamental practice of our faith tradition, one that keeps Christians across the ages connected as part of the same body of believers and same faith.

Second, if we remove the belief requirements for leaders, we, as a community, would have no protection against further regulation of our beliefs and practices on campus. Without language in our constitution requiring leaders to affirm a particular religious belief, we lose protection of our right to freely exercise and express our beliefs on campus, because our constitution’s leadership requirements were the mechanism by which our beliefs and practices have been protected by former university policy. For example, if the university receives a complaint about what a religious group teaches or practices, and the university has approved a constitution that states what we expect leaders to believe and practice, then their policies protect us. Moving forward, there will be no written policy protecting religious beliefs or practices. In the end, functioning in an environment where our beliefs and practices are not protected by university policies puts all religious groups in a tenuous position.

Third, we believe the modern secular university is best served by protecting robust pluralism. We believe that diverse communities of belief, including creedal religious communities, have a place in university life and should have a seat at the table among other ideologies and philosophies. We want historic, evangelical Christianity to be authentically represented on campus. Since “Christian” is in our name, we want students who wander into our community to be able to see an example of authentic Christian beliefs and practices. Therefore, we want to ensure that our leaders represent these beliefs and practices.

Fourth, it is not uncommon for students to convert to another faith, renounce faith altogether, or drift theologically. Pastorally walking with students in these times of transition is difficult enough. Having them in leadership positions where they can (and have) sought to lead a whole student group adrift adds another layer of complexity. Intervarsity has had belief requirements for their leaders since the very beginning of our movement in 1941.  Creeds are like a tuner in music. If we strip our constitution of creedal governance (requirements of belief for leaders), we won’t become a totally different sort of group overnight, but given time – 10, 15, 20 years – we will slowly move toward whatever the majority dictates and, little by little, lose our “tune,” with no mechanism in place by which to return to our original beliefs. Christians have used creeds for thousands of years because creeds ensure that we stay unified or “in key” with each other and with the historic, global faith that we have received.

In the coming days, the InterVarsity staff team at Vanderbilt will explore each of these questions further on this site.