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.