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.