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.