Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt University has been under attack from FIRE and other conservatives for requiring all student groups to follow the campus non-discrimination policy in their constitutions. The Christian Legal Society, which imposes a Statement of Faith on all campus student leaders, has objected.

I can never get anyone to answer my question about what I see as the greatest danger of CLS’ position. Who, exactly, should be given the authority to evaluate a student’s religious beliefs and determine whether they obey the Statement of Faith? Should it be the administration who enforces student group constitutions when someone alleges a violation? Should it be the students in the group by their selection of leaders? If it’s the latter, shouldn’t we all oppose a faith-based constitutional requirement for student leaders that overturns the student-selected leaders and allows the administration to impose its will on students? And if the national CLS wants to be given the power to overrule students and pick student leaders (as it did in the CLS v. Martinez case), anyone concerned about student choice and college autonomy must object to giving an outside group total control over student organizations.

Robert Shipley of FIRE argues, “Forcing them to allow any student to become a leader regardless of belief can imperil their very existence.” There has yet to be uncovered in the history of higher education a single case where a gang of atheists tried to take over a religious student group.

Hostile takeovers are extremely rare, but rules against it are needed (to protect all groups). Of course, in the real world, the national CLS forces student groups to sign this Statement of Faith because they want to ban gay (and gay-friendly) student leaders. They weren’t afraid of hostile takeovers; they wanted to do their own hostile takeovers if students picked their own leaders who were too liberal. Anyone who fears a hostile takeover removing a leader students want should oppose all belief-based rules. After all, all sorts of viewpoints and actions (from anger to adultery) violate the CLS Statement of Faith, and a hostile student could demand that all CLS leaders be removed for failing to live up to their religious ideals.

Statements of faith don’t prevent a student-based hostile takeover, since anyone can simply sign the statement. The statement of faith only works if there is someone to enforce its ideological doctrines. And that’s the problem because the public college administrators have to be the ones to enforce faith if it’s in a student group’s constitution. A CLS group can list the statement of faith as their fundamental values, and its members can choose to vote against anyone who won’t sign it, but what I object to is the final step of making this a constitutional rule.

However, Vanderbilt is wrong in one important respect. CLS’s constitution states that, “Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at Chapter meetings as tasked by the President.” Rev. Gretchen Person of Vanderbilt objected, “This would seem to indicate that officers are expected to hold certain beliefs.” No, it doesn’t. Leading Bible studies, prayer, and even worship does not require certain beliefs, only certain actions. An individual is still free to believe anything they want. Also, the wording of this section is “expected to,” unlike the required “must” language for the Statement of Faith. Vanderbilt needs to be careful to give CLS the latitude to write their own Constitution and express their goals and expectations for student leaders, so long as these are not imposed by enforceable ideological requirements.

Vanderbilt must protect the religious liberty of its students, by giving them the freedom to choose their own student leaders without discriminatory rules.

One thought on “Religious Freedom at Vanderbilt

  1. Pingback: George Will’s Hypocrisy on Vanderbilt « Academe Blog

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