In April 2011, Vanderbilt University rejected the constitutions of several campus religious organizations, including InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship, placing them on “provisional status” for the remainder of the academic year. The constitutions were rejected because they stated each respective religious community’s requirement that their leaders affirm a commitment to the religious beliefs and purpose of the group they were leading. Several other campus religious groups who also require their leaders to affirm particular religious beliefs were not deferred because these requirements were not explicitly stated in the constitutions of these groups.
Over the summer, we began conversing with administrators about the unfolding policy, working to better understand the full shape of the policy and its implications. Fundamentally, Vanderbilt’s new policy dictates that religious groups cannot require leaders to affirm the beliefs of the religious group they lead and, if the stated purpose of the group is religious, a group also cannot require a leader to affirm the group’s purpose statement. Vanderbilt is now reinterpreting the school’s nondiscrimination clause to mean that it is discrimination against a student in leadership to ask that student to affirm any sort of religious belief.
In early fall, national and local media began to report the story. On campus, we were engaged in serious dialogue with the university, advocating for the full protection of religious identity and liberty. A summary of our basic plea to the university can be found here, in a guest editorial written by our staff worker, Tish Warren, for the Vanderbilt student newspaper.
In November, when the Vanderbilt Board of Trust met on campus, more than100 students gathered to pray, sing, and protest this policy as Board members entered Kirkland Hall. Campus ministers also met with Vanderbilt’s Provost and Vice Chancellor about this new policy, which helped us better understand the administration’s position but offered little hope that the administration would change its mind.
In late January 2012, the Provost and Vice-Chancellor hosted a Town Hall meeting about the issue. Students, eager to speak out against the policy, met together to prepare thoughtful, probing questions. Around 300-400 students and faculty showed up to participate in the Town Hall meeting. Many were turned away since the Town Hall was held in a room that seated around 200. The event lasted over three hours. You can watch the whole meeting here. In summary, the students were largely thoughtful and engaging. However, it was clear that the administration is deeply committed to its current course.
As spring is springing here in Tennessee, we are preparing for the year ahead. Unless something surprising happens, it looks like a dozen or so religious groups will fail to meet the university’s new requirement. These groups feel that belief requirements for leaders are necessary for religious organizations to preserve their identity and, out of a desire to be honest with the university about our practices, we will state this explicitly in our constitutions. All of these groups are sadly expecting to have our constitutions rejected when they are submitted in April.
What does losing our status as registered student organizations mean for our religious communities, most of which have been part of the Vanderbilt community for a very long time? We do not fully know. Presently, Vanderbilt administrators say that we will no longer be able to reserve rooms, participate in orientation events and student organization fairs, host our websites on the university servers, use the university listservs, use Vanderbilt’s name, or have access to funds, even those from external sources, held by the university in our student organizations’ financial accounts. (Since we have money from private donations that we may therefore lose, we may be having a big, fancy party before we get the boot! You’re invited.)