Politics & Policy

The Fallout from Christian Legal Society

Richard C. McCarty, Vanderbilt provost and vice chancellor (Vanderbilt University)
Vanderbilt launches an offensive against religious freedom.

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.

Don’t take my word for it. Take the word of Richard C. McCarty, Vanderbilt’s vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost. Excerpts from this exchange at the meeting should leave any traditional religious believer in shock:

VANDERBILT LAW STUDENT AND CLS MEMBER PALMER WILLIAMS: I am a little confused by the fact that under your policy, I can gather with a group of my friends, or a group of like-minded people, I can state my beliefs, but as soon as I go as far as writing down what we believe in, and then try to live by those beliefs as a community on campus, then I’m not allowed to do that.

VICE CHANCELLOR MCCARTY: What I’m going to challenge you to do, [is] to be open to a member that doesn’t share your faith beliefs who could be a wonderful member of CLS, maybe even a leader. But we’re not saying you have to vote for that person. We’re simply saying that person, who maybe does not profess allegiance to Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior, should be allowed to run for office in CLS. Maybe it’s not chair or president, maybe it’s a person who is amazing at social outreach. It would still be consistent with your goals of serving the underserved with legal advice and legal services, but maybe isn’t Christian but they endorse what you’re trying to do. Give that person a chance. . . . Now let me give you another example, and this would affect all of you. I’m Catholic. What if my faith beliefs guided all of the decisions I make from day to day?

[At this point, the crowd applauds the idea that people should live according to their faith.]

No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! No they shouldn’t! [Disagreement from crowd.] Well, I know you do, but I’m telling you that as a Catholic I am very comfortable using my best judgment as a person to make decisions. As a Catholic, if I held that life begins at conception, I’d have a very big problem with our hospital. Right? Would I not? . . . I would, but I don’t. . . . We don’t want to have personal religious views intrude on good decisionmaking on this campus. They can guide your personal conduct, but I’m not going to let my faith life intrude. I’ll do the best I can at making good decisions, but I’m not going to impose my beliefs on others, not going to do it.

Yes, you just heard the vice chancellor of Vanderbilt University tell students that they shouldn’t let their religious views intrude on their decisionmaking. That their religious beliefs should not guide their day-to-day actions. That people who reject faith in Jesus Christ should be given a chance as leaders of a Christian group (he later adds that Muslim groups must retain leaders who have lost faith in Allah). And to top it off, he uses the fact that as a Catholic, he has no problem with the abortions performed in Vanderbilt’s hospital as an example of what is expected.

Many people undoubtedly agree with Vice Chancellor McCarty’s political and personal opinions. But that a leader of a major university (in the Bible Belt, no less) could go before a group of students and tell them that a university policy is good because it will force them to leave their religious faith out of their decisionmaking shows a profound disconnect between the attitudes of the Vanderbilt administration and those of its religious students. Indeed, this is a 180-degree difference from what millions of Americans hear in church each Sunday, and from the traditional understanding of how Christians, Jews, and Muslims should live. And despite this, Vanderbilt believes that requiring “all comers” to be welcome in all organizations, no matter how ill-suited they are for one another, is such an overriding concern in fighting discrimination that it has overruled or ignored every objection including pluralism itself — and basic common sense.

Oh, wait, did I say all organizations? Actually, Vanderbilt has exempted its fraternities and sororities from the rule. The imperatives of social justice, it seems, lose all force at the door of the Deke house.

— Robert Shibley, an attorney, is senior vice president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE; thefire.org).


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