The Fallout from Christian Legal Society
Vanderbilt launches an offensive against religious freedom.

Richard C. McCarty, Vanderbilt provost and vice chancellor (Vanderbilt University)


Since the Supreme Court’s sharply divided and startlingly wrongheaded decision two years ago in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, those concerned about religious liberty on campus have known that the fallout was on its way. At Vanderbilt University, it has arrived — and it’s as bad as anticipated.

In Martinez, the Court determined that public institutions like the University of California’s Hastings College of the Law could require all student groups — even those based on shared belief, such as religious and political organizations — to admit members and even leaders without regard to their beliefs. Groups like the Christian Legal Society (CLS), whose constitution required students to have traditional Christian beliefs (such as in Christ’s bodily resurrection) and morals (no sexual activity outside heterosexual marriage), could be required to remove those provisions from their constitutions and admit “all comers,” or else face “derecognition” and the corresponding loss of access to meeting space and other benefits that all other groups enjoyed. To lack recognition is basically not to exist at all on today’s college campus.

Justice Alito, writing for the minority in the 5–4 decision, warned that the decision would be used as a “weapon” against groups with viewpoints that are unpopular among the vast majority of college administrators, since the immediate negative impact of the decision would fall mostly upon the religiously and politically conservative groups those administrators already disfavor. Other critics such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE, where I work) warned that an all-comers policy would sweep within its ambit political groups as well, and invite takeovers and spying by members of opposing groups who wished to cause mischief or even destroy their rivals. At minimum, such a policy guarantees that a group will have no mechanism to maintain a consistent message.

The complications of adopting such policies have delayed their adoption by many public universities. Ohio even passed a law against such policies at its state schools. Yet the Supreme Court’s seeming endorsement inspired Vanderbilt to jump in with both feet — despite the fact that the Supreme Court’s decision did not affect private universities. (Private universities are not subject to the First Amendment and may completely abolish religious freedom if they wish; few do.) Last fall, it announced that a new “all comers” policy would soon be enforced, and after months of avoiding questions from nearly everyone under the sun, including FIRE, the National Association of Evangelicals, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and 23 members of Congress, Vanderbilt finally held a “town hall” discussion on its decision on January 31. While the discussion was scheduled to last 90 minutes, religious students showed up with so many concerns that it ran for three hours and was so packed that many were turned away at the doors.

A video of the meeting leads the viewer to a startling revelation: Vanderbilt administrators are adopting the policy for the purpose of undermining certain religious beliefs, and, as usual, evangelical and Catholic Christians are the main targets. This is just the kind of use of an all-comers policy that the Supreme Court, in the Martinez case, said would be unacceptable in a school that had to respect the First Amendment.