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Christian groups under fire at Vanderbilt

Four student religious organizations at Vanderbilt University may be in jeopardy following a review by the school’s administration that takes issue with the groups requiring their leaders share the groups’ core religious beliefs.

The Christian groups in question — Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Sigma Phi Lamda — were placed on provisional status in April after the Office of the Dean of Students concluded that the organizations were not in compliance with the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

The noncompliance issue is the same for the four groups. Each group’s constitution contains a clause which restricts leadership positions to individuals who share the group’s core religious beliefs. The university is in the process of determining whether these clauses violate the school’s nondiscrimination policy; until a determination is made, the groups will retain provisional status.

Associate Dean of Strategic Initiatives and Assessment Patricia Helland confirmed the university initially told the four religious organizations to remove provisions from their constitutions that restricted leadership positions, but has now backed away from the position following feedback from those organizations.

“People have come back to us and said ‘what do you mean? This is faith based. This is our values. If we change that, we are not who we are’ and what we’ve done is we’ve listened,” Helland said. “We are looking at what all the issues are to make a decision.”

The university began reviewing the constitutions of all student organizations at the beginning of the calendar year, following allegations earlier this year that Beta Upsilon Chi (BYX), a Christian fraternity on campus, asked an openly gay member to resign due to his sexual orientation. The investigation into the BYX allegations is still ongoing, according to Dean of Students Mark Bandas.

Thirteen student groups have provisional status following the review because of noncompliance with the university’s nondiscrimination clause, according to Helland. Eight of the 13 organizations are nonreligious; some religious organizations, such as Vandy Catholic, passed the review without issue.

Administrators declined to name the eight non-religious organizations with provisional status and the specific dates each organizations were notified. Bandas said he regards the information as confidential.

Helland said no group has been denied student organization status yet, and the provisional groups are operating as normal registered student organization pending further dialogue.

According to second year law student Justin Gunter, however, there has not been any significant dialogue with the university on the issue. Gunter is the president of the Christian Legal Society, one of the four Christian groups in violation.

“This has been an ongoing issue for six months and we have yet to receive any real response despite complying with everything they’ve asked of us,” Gunter said.

In response to the university’s initial review, Gunter said the CLS made two changes to their constitution. The first was to remove specific biblical passages from the document, and the second was to insert the text of the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

Still, the university took issue with a provision in the constitution that requires leaders to run bible studies and prayer groups.

“A policy that limits religious groups’ ability to have religious leaders and activities decreases religious diversity,” Gunter said. “Vanderbilt should ensure its non-discrimination policy does not undermine the university’s religious diversity.”

Carol M. Swain, professor of law and political science, criticized the university in a column in the Tennessean published on Sept. 14.

“This hastily conceived policy has the potential to destroy every religious organization on campus by secularizing religion and allowing intolerant conflict,” Swain wrote. “Carried to its logical extension, it means that no organization can maintain integrity of beliefs.”

In a phone interview with the Hustler, Swain said the actions taken by the university are part of an effort to secularize religion on campus.

“From my perspective, (the policy) goes too far,” Swain said. “I felt this issue does affect alumni and donors and they need to know what the university is doing.”

Kyle Blaine is a staff writer for the Vanderbilt Hustler. He is a contributor to The College Fix.

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  • Nancy

    Christianity is the politically incorrect opinion apparently – how tragic that Vanderbilt has sunk so low!

  • Terrye Newkirk, M.A. ’84

    I chose Vanderbilt for graduate school partly because of the Fugitive/Agrarian tradition and its connections with Southern literature. What a shock when all I heard in many seminars was Derrida and Deconstruction. Three of my best profs were denied tenure–all of them Catholic, as it happened–while a convicted pedophile was given a named professorship. Then the Catholic daily Mass was kicked out of the small chapel to make room for Muslim prayer on Friday. My specialty was devotional poetry–but after my last great professor (and director) retired, there was no one to direct my dissertation. A classmate, however, had no trouble getting a Ph.D. in comic books.

    So, while this saddens me, it doesn’t surprise me.

  • Paul Hemphill

    “In a world of fugitives, the person going the opposite direction appears to be running away.” T.S. Elliot
    I realize it is not politically correct to stand for ANYTHING as absolute or worthy of praise or infallible, especially if it’s something Western, which in of itself is discriminatiory and opinionated, is it not.? After all, it’s easier to tear down, and Christians make a good target in today’s worship of men’s prideful intellect. The “world of fugitives” would bend us into moral relativism and pragmatism (American’s contribution to philosophy), for everything. Discrimination is different from invidious discrimination, based on race, color or national origin,or previous condition of servitude (see Amend. XV to the US Constitution). There was a winner and loser in last week’s football game with Oxfordtown, which discriminates based on an objective standard, does it not? Belief is even more worthy of protection because it is subjective, so long as Amend XV criteria is not involved. A core belief system is not the same as outward status (male or female, rich or poor, Jew or Greek) or outward characteristics, which would be repugnant to an outstanding liberal arts univestity such as Vanderbilt. Lighten up Vandy, let students gather around something that is “true, noble, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, and praiseworthy”.
    Paul Hemphill, A & S ’70
    PS: And Christianity has a distinctive Eastern origin, does it not?

    • Elizabeth Minton-Myers

      Paul –
      Your comments and insight are on target. The current age of hypocrisy is overtaking the system of belief that our country was created with and based on. Without the underlying knowledge, morals and values of a belief system originally based on Christianity; our community, educational system and government is meaningless. There is an expectation that Christianity and God are the foundation for which our country was created. Without a common belief system to act as the foundation, there is no right or wrong.

      Supporting people who have different beliefs is the outcome Vandy is trying to achieve. Vandy is no different than any other community, educational system or government, afraid of the outcome of supporting individuals and groups who hold different beliefs. The fear driving the decisions are the ramifications and associated costs of discrimination, not the actual beliefs of the people. As a result, discrimination occurs inadvertently.

      What is occurring, is discrimination against those who have chosen a belief system, and who have organized based on that belief system. Those without the belief system, have choices: join and accept the constitution, organize your own group, or do not participate. Nowhere is the requirement the group you have joined must accommodate your beliefs. The result of mandating tolerance in this situation is discrimination, and is exactly what the university is trying to avoid. Allowing these groups to continue on, as is, exemplifies tolerance.

  • F. Gerald Walker

    As an alumnus, grad. 1975 Dvivinity School (Centennial Year), I find this reactionary stance of some in the administration to be outrageous. How can a policy advocating (and promoting) diversity and tolerance lead to the knee-jerk censoring of values & identity of certain groups (usually groups identified with traditional Western Culture, such as “Christian”, “American Patriotic”, “Traditional Family”, etc… we all know which ones.) ? To possess values and maintain identity necessarily requires conformity and “exclusivity”. This does not ipso facto mean “discrimination against” other groups or classes. What a convoluted agenda!

  • Lee Van Deest (VU BS Math, ’77)

    Funny how there were MORE non-religious groups than religious ones that got into trouble, and plenty of other Christian groups that didn’t, but somehow this is seen as proof that “Christianity is under fire”. Has Vanderbilt stopped teaching logic, or is this just bias on the part of the headline writer?

    • Jason Smith

      excellent point!

    • Corey

      Actually, Lee, someone who knew anything about logic would note that, if Christian groups are among the groups under fire, even if the majority of those groups are non-religious, then Christian groups are under fire. But let’s not parse words: it’s Christian groups that have taken a stand against these policies, and it’s members of Christian groups that showed up to question Vandy administrators about it.

      A more interesting question would be why the non-religious groups haven’t made noise about this.

  • Nell Stringfellow George

    Sadly, you can take God out of public places, but you can never remove the Almighty God, who is always present, the self existent eternal One, the Great “I Am.”
    (graduated 1977, BSN, and 1988 MSN)

  • Maria Beach

    I am a Vanderbilt alumna and teach at another university now. What is often omitted from news stories like these is that students (all students) pay activities fees that are distributed to registered student organizations. In return for accepting funding, the organizations are supposed to promise to be open to all students who wish to participate. Many people might want to be part of a religious club without being an adherent of the faith–a young man who is a comparative religion major may be equally interested in joining an evangelical Protestant group, a Catholic group, a Buddhist group, and a Hindu group in order to gain more insights into their beliefs, for instance. He should be allowed to be a participant in the registered student organizations that he wants to join.

    That does not mean that religious groups on campus have to surrender their tenets of faith–no one would force a priest to administer communion to a non-Catholic at a Catholic mass, for instance. But joining the Catholic Church and joining a Catholic student organization are not the same thing.

    Here is a real example from my undergraduate experience: When I was a Vandy freshman and neophyte voter, I joined BOTH the Young Republicans and the Campus Democrats and attended all of the meetings and activities of both sides until Election Day. I thought that was an excellent way to learn about the opposing party platforms and decide for myself what I thought about politics rather than simply imitating my parents’ choices. It would have been disappointing to be barred from one group based upon my voter registration card’s party affiliation.

    I do think it is appropriate for a university to require registered student organizations that receive student fees to be open to all interested students. Education happens both inside and outside the classroom.

    Maria Beach, A&S ’88

    • Jennie (MBA ’97)

      “Membership” in these groups is a separate issue. These groups are not being criticized for not being open to the whole student body. The issue facing the organizations is who is allowed to hold a “leadership” role, and that needs to remain true to the values and beliefs of the organization and not watered down to nothing.

    • Teri

      What I think you have missed is what is really being asked of these organizations… IT IS NOT THAT THEYare not willing to (as you say) “promise to be open to all students who wish to participate” But they have beliefs that make them who they are….read above article again……this is what needs to remain intact “Each group’s constitution contains a clause which restricts leadership positions to individuals who share the group’s core religious beliefs.”
      The hopes for most of these groups is that ALL would come to see and learn what they are all about and if you put those in leadership who do not have the same beliefs and values then that takes away all that each group is about.

    • Charles

      I agree, but the issue as I understand it is different. It isn’t a question as to whether anyone can join the groups. It is a question of whether they can be a leader in the groups. To use your example, though I think if a staunch democrat wanted to join a republican group, they should be able to. I think you would agree, however, that they should not be able to have a leadership role where they could hinder or harm the group’s overall goals and efforts. The incident that caused all of this discussion at Vandy was that an openly homosexual student was asked to step down from their leadership position in the Christian group. If we were to flip this I wonder how many would have a problem. For instance, if an openly Christian student were to want to be a leader in the homosexual group on campus, would they be allowed to do so? When I ask this, I assume that we understand that this Christian student would speak of homosexuality as a sin. I think that we would probably find the university siding with the homosexual group. I could be wrong, but I think when you turn things around and think about it from both sides, it provides a good perspective. The issue is really that our world continues to find ways to limit and rid people of their rights when it comes to their freedom of religion. As a Christian, I am grateful for the freedom of religion in our country, but I do not think it is a promise from God. I also do not think it will always be a guarantee in this country. It is decreasing all the time and eventually the bible itself may come under attack and be considered as a book of hate because of its words against things like homosexuality. Just some thoughts 🙂

      • Nancy D.

        Charles, it is out of Love and respect for all persons who have been created equal in Dignity , while being complementary as male and female , that God commands that we not engage in any act, including any sexual act, that demeans our inherent Dignity as human persons. God commands what Love requires.

    • Paul Hemphill

      I reread the article to be certain that the Christian group restrictions refer only to “leaders” and not “participants”. I see no reference prohibiting any student from attending meetings or participating or “joining” or “being a part”. Surely, leaders should have some qualifications that would help them promote, advocate and be an apologist for the group goals.

    • Nancy D.

      Actually, in order for a student organization or any organization to be Catholic, that organization must be in communion with The Catholic Church.

  • Alum

    Re: Maria Beach, the organizations are open to all interested students–the issue being contested is whether the organizations are able to require that their leaders adhere to certain beliefs or activities.

    • Joe O’Brien

      Amen to Jennie and Alum ………which I am also.

  • At least witches aren’t being discriminated against at Vanderbilt — they now get to recognize their own wiccan holidays.

  • Another reason why Vandy will never receive a dime of my money as an alumnus.

    • DC

      Me too… hope they read this.

  • Bill Mynatt, A&S ’88

    Liberal and gay here and this bothers me. If the purpose of the organization is to support those with the same beliefs, why is this not protected? I get not giving them University funding, and I get tempering their right to be abusive, but come on……

  • Leadership without a fundamental belief is meaningless. I have always been very proud of my association with Vanderbilt. Please correct this mistake in a prompt fashion.

  • Vanessa Worrell

    It seems that political correctness and tolerance extends to every religious group except Christianity. A group that cannot have its basic tenets as a part of its affiliation loses its integrity and distinction. It seems that this country is going so far too the left that we will soon fall off the grid. I am disappointed in my university for the first time in my life.

    • Paul Hemphill


  • Tonya (M.Div ’98)

    WOW… This is so sad and disappointing. Is not the point of it being a Christian organization is to uphold the fundamentals of the Christian faith within their particular areas of influence/study! Again … all I can really say is WOW!!!

  • Rebecca Wayland, BA 1986

    Lee, You are absolutely correct: there are more non-religious groups than religious groups who are under review. Why then the headlines, disgust, and discussion of political correctness focusing only on Christianity? Are our values limited only to those that support Christianity? Are we so insecure that any challenge is met with such inflammatory language and knee-jerk assumptions of bad intent?

    The prompting event here was dismissal of a gay student from an organization because of his sexual orientation: is that not worthy of a broader investigation of general policies? I am glad Vanderbilt is conducting this review. I am pleased to know that they are conducting a lengthy investigation before they are establishing policies. I am not surprised that the list of organizations investigated includes both religious and non-religious organizations.

    I just hope that the administrators conducting this review are more careful thinkers than many of those commenting on it.

    • Rob Adcox

      The issue is specifically about whether or not a Christian organization can be allowed to practice its faith in accordance with the Christian Bible. That Bible states that same-sex relationships are forbidden within the religion. The gay student was a member of that group, and it can reasonably be assumed that he knew what the stance toward same-sex relationships are before he even sought membership in the group.

      “I just hope that the administrators conducting this review are more careful thinkers than many of those commenting on it.” Really? When do you plan to start?

      • Lee McComb

        The Bible can more easily be shown to support slavery than to forbid homosexuality. Every Christian organization in the world (and at Vanderbilt) picks and chooses which parts of the Bible to embrace and which parts to rationalize away. Vanderbilt is saying that discrimination against gay students by university-funded religious organizations will not be accepted.

        • Rob Adcox

          What does “man is not made to lie downc with man, nor woman with woman” mean to you? Seems pretty clear to me.

        • Rob Adcox

          Look, this is very simple: the student in question knew going in that Christianity rejects same-sex relationships within its tenets. He has no valid complaint. Vanderbilt cannot force any Christian group or individual on its campus to compromise the tenets of their faith in the interest of political correctness. Sorry, but you’re wrong.

  • larry

    Jeez. What can’t you figure out? They get school money. They use school resources. They’re not permitted to discriminate. Saying “you can’t be a leader” is discrimination.

    It’s sorta simple.

    • Rob Adcox

      When a group of students comes to the university and requests resources to start a Christian group, and the university agrees, then that same university cannot logically complain when the Christian group’s members adhere to the tenets of the Christian Bible. Nor, for that matter, should a Christian group be expected to cede leadership to a non-Christian. Yeah, it’s “sorta simple”. It’s called “integrity”.

  • Charlie

    What a microcosm of American culture. For the social engineering crowd the PLAN is, and has been, to cause the death of stinky ol’ Christianity by a thousand cuts. Meanwhile five major wounds in the body of Christ 2000 years ago paved the way for all who repent to be saved. Strike one…Al Gore went to Vanderbilt. Strike two American Christians are now being discounted so foreign cultures with bring their $$$$ to Tennesee. Simple solutions…..Christians you first….demand recogition without taking Vandy money. Foreigners….take your money home and build your own “enlightened” universities. Vandy: repent from poitical correctness.

  • regina christiansen

    Very disappointed in my alma mater. Vanderbilt has definately strayed from its foundation

    • Graham

      Is “its [VU’s] foundation” discriminatory acts? Do you think it is correct to tell an individual you can join our group but you cannot try to lead it? It is clear that telling a person they have fewer rights than another because of their status is unlawful. Or is this simply galling because it is a Christian group and we’re talking about non-Christians?

      What nobody seems to note is VU is not saying to any organization that a particular individual — such as a Muslim, Jew, atheist, agnostic or Wiccan — has to lead the organization. That is still up to a vote by the members according to the group’s bylaws. VU is simply saying in conformity with decades of jurisprudence that any particular individual has the right to try (e.g., cannot be disenfranchised) to lead the organization.

      Why is that threatening? (And Charlie #21, how is that “political correctness”, let alone relevant to “foreign cultures”? My understanding, to the contrary, is that it is America’s culture that is inclusive.)

      If Vandy is to retain standing as a great university it really needs to understand what this is about. These posts are so plainly on the wrong side of history it is embarassing. Worse, they will come to affect student recruiting, placement of students in grad schools and employer recruiting.

      If VU wants to stop taking all Federal money for grants, research, etc., it will be better freed up to act as the posters here seem to wish. Did VU somehow become a seminary and I missed it?

      • Rob Adcox

        Is there some reason why a Christian group can’t be composed of Christians? Or is that concept just a little too complex?

        • DC

          This is an issue because there have been instances in the past where large numbers of people have “joined” the CLS in order to vote in a nonbeliever as the leader and effectively dismantled the group. If conservatives/christians were to pull this off in reverse, we’d never hear the end of it.

  • Heather Morcroft

    Excellent move on Vanderbilt’s part. It is nice to be proud of my alma mater, because there have been times when I was not. Christianity is a fine faith, but, as with any other faith, forcing it on people is completely unacceptable.

    • Rob Adcox

      Who’s forcing Christianity on you? Did someone hold you at gunpoint and make you go to church? Please, Heather. you’re breaking my heart.

      • BH

        Nobody forced the student in question to join this group, Heather. In fact, this same student is free to start his/her own group for homosexual “Christians” if they desire. Vandy would probably throw money at them hand over fist.
        Further, he was not asked to resign for being a homosexual, but because he didn’t believe homosexuality was sinful. Christians hate the sin, not the sinner, and they probably would have welcomed this student as a member regardless, for the opportunity to witness to them.

    • Alice Ashton

      Membership in these groups in NOT REQUIRED.

    • Paul Hemphill

      Who is being forced? Would one not expect a Christian group to be focused on the tenants of the faith, the core beliefs? I remember attending FCA meeings during my tenure at Vandy. I would not have expected Wiccans to be leading the group and the door was open to all to participate and observe, however they chose. Is this not the case at hand. Is anyone standing at the door administering a litmus test to visitors, such as myself, “one born out of due time”. Of course not.

  • Heather Morcroft

    Oh, it also strikes me as interesting that the people blindly supporting fundamentalism and bigotry appear to be unable to spell. I think that says a lot.

    • Rob Adcox

      Whenever you lose the argument, you can always attack someone’s spelling. Tell me, are you a prescriptive grammarian?

    • Corey

      It would help your argument about stupidity of all those poor fundamentalists and bigots if your comments seemed to be posted by somebody with a modicum of intelligence. How you can think this has anything to do with “forcing Christianity on anybody” is beyond me.

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  • Rob Adcox

    This issue is about the assault on integrity of religious groups on campus. Why, Vanderbilt, are you attempting to enforce a policy which challenges, for instance, the placement of a Christian leader in a Christian organization? Policy is reflexive. Policy means that all of the thinking has already been done, and that one merely needs to follow the template placed in front of him. That’s why, in the absence of comon sense, academia suffers. My once-high opinion of Vanderbilt has fallen substantially.

  • Vince

    Hmm I wonder if they’ll let a Republican run under the Democrat ticket in this election by Vanderbilt philosophy

  • Alice Ashton

    Alice Miller Ashton, B.A. 1981
    I graduated from VU in 1981, My sister in 1978′. My other sister in 1980 (MBA). My husband graduated from the Law School in 1972, and last but certainly not least,
    My dad graduated in the late 40’s and served as the Assistant Treasurer and Treasurer of the University in the early 1970’s. We are all outraged by the actions taken against Christians on campus and not one of us will ever give a dime to,or speak well of,Vanderbilt again. I hope someone is reading this but they probably do not care one whit about what I think.

  • JayM, BS ’92, MS ’94

    Do something, folks. Alumna here, ’92 BS and ’94 MS. Call, write, and/or email, anyone and everyone. Let them feel the backlash. Be known and be heard.

    Here the information. You know what to do.
    Nicholas Zeppos
    [email protected]
    (615) 322-1813
    [email protected]
    (615) 322-6400

    Then lend your support to Justin Gunter and the others at:
    Christian Legal Society at Vanderbilt
    Vanderbilt University Law School
    131 21st Ave. South
    Nashville, TN 37203-1181
    (here’s the website: http://law.vanderbilt.edu/student-resources/student-organizations/christian-legal-society/index.aspx).

    We are all disappointed in Vanderbilt, but give your support to those young Christian lawyers-to-be .


  • aow

    Not really sure how I feel – would have to study the position of the Vandy committee looking at the issue. But, I have an answer – just don’t have bylaws. I was the President of a student organization and we didn’t have bylaws. We just did majority vote. Maybe not realistic for large student organizations but it worked for us.

  • Texas A&M is doing something similar, my organization, Ratio Christi, had to change its constitution to get rid of the clause forcing officers to be christians, but A&M had a work around caluse that says that officers must support the organizations goals, which contain a doctrinal statement. This is a disturbing trend, and I fully legal battles in the future at A&M over this issue. A couple of years ago A&M also restricted a Christian FLO (freshman leadership organization) and there was a big court battle.

    aow: what has happened in the past is that other organizations will do “hostile takeovers” by sending large numbers of people to vote in their officer elections and elect non-christians. Also most student organizations are REQUIRED to have a constitution.

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