Fix Features

Kyle Blaine - Fix Contributor

Twenty-three members of Congress earlier this month wrote to Vanderbilt University Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, urging him to allow religious groups to freely choose their leaders.

The Congressional Prayer Caucus, which includes Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) and Rep. Diane Black (R-TN), sent the letter on Oct. 6 in reference to several student religious groups placed on provisional status for requiring their leaders to share the groups’ core religious beliefs.

“Religious student groups form around specific beliefs, and provide an opportunity for like-minded individuals to assemble to study the tenets of their faith and engage in activities that enrich their religious experiences,” the letter reads. “It follows, then, that religious groups must be allowed to select leaders that share the group’s core religious beliefs in order to maintain their religious identities and carry out their primary functions. Selecting leaders that best represent a student organization’s mission is not discrimination; it is common sense.”

The Vanderbilt Hustler reached out to a university official this afternoon for comment on the letter but has not yet received a response.

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Now, the Occupy Wall Street movement has spread across the country, and Nashville got its first taste of it this week, with two rallies held at Legislative Plaza and Centennial Park respectively.

The name of the group behind the local movement is Occupy Nashville, but the two rallies they put on Thursday were more traditional protests than they were occupations.

Jane Steinfels-Hussain is the secretary of the Nashville Peace and Justice Center, the group responsible for organizing the rallies. She says the Occupy Nashville movement has three goals: get big corporate money out of politics, end corporate personhood and support the protesters on Wall Street.

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Michael Moore told a sold out audience at Vanderbilt University Tuesday night to “occupy everything” in order to restore democracy in an America he characterized as dominated by corporate greed and corruption.

The Oscar-winning filmmaker and author made headlines in recent weeks by lending his support and celebrity status to the Occupy Wall Street movement. Moore said, in his mind, Wall Street’s actions leading up to the financial crisis of 2008 were criminal and called for arrests to be made.

“These Occupy protests are the most important movements happening in this country,” Moore said. “Occupy Nashville, occupy Memphis, occupy everything to get democracy back.”

The movement, now in its third week, has spread to several cities across the U.S. and is expected to start Thursday in Nashville.

In his two-hour long talk, Moore placed blame on wealthy Americans for capitalism’s failure in the 21st century, going as far as using a Russian accent to characterize “the rich” in America as Soviet-era communists.

“(The rich) hate the free market,” Moore said. “Their nirvana is no competition, no choice for the consumer.”

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Religious organizations at Vanderbilt University are no longer guaranteed freedom of religious association, following changes made to the school’s nondiscrimination policy late last year, the Vanderbilt Hustler has learned.

The university last year removed a clause from its nondiscrimination policy after allegations surfaced in Nov. 2010 that a Christian fraternity on campus asked an openly gay member to resign because of his sexual orientation.

The change, made on Dec. 8, 2010, removed a sentence that guaranteed freedom of religious association for external organizations that associate with the university. The change was made after the Hustler reported the allegations on Nov. 5, 2010.

The text read,”Vanderbilt University is committed to the principle of nondiscrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, or gender identity or expression, or the perception of one’s sexual orientation, gender identity or expression. In affirming its commitment to this principle, the University does not limit freedom of religious association, does not require adherence to this principle by government agencies or external organizations that associate with, but are not controlled by, the University, and does not extend benefits beyond those provided under other policies of the University.”

University officials were contacted for comment Monday afternoon but have not yet responded.

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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.”

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Kyle Blaine is a reporter for the Vanderbilt Hustler. He is a contributor to the College Fix, and was a summer 2011 intern at Reason Magazine.

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