The Corner

The Battle of Vanderbilt: The Tennessee Legislature Comes Through

For some time I’ve been commenting on a critical front in the battle for religious liberty on campus, the fight for religious liberty at Vanderbilt University. For those who haven’t been following this case, a summary: In the name of a particularly empty-headed and hypocritical brand of “nondiscrimination,” Vanderbilt is requiring campus Christian groups to be open to non-Christian leadership, even as it protects the special prerogatives of its large (and powerful) community of fraternities and sororities.  

It is difficult to fully describe the mendacity and bad faith of senior Vanderbilt officials throughout this process. University officials claimed that they were merely enforcing an old policy — yet they’ve been confronted with irrefutable evidence of written policy changes that removed protections for religious groups. They compared Christian students seeking Christian leadership for their groups to segregationists. According to multiple sources, they falsely told their own board that their nondiscrimination policy was necessary to preserve federal and state funding. They misled the legislature by claiming that no one had made a written appeal to the university’s Board of Trust, when the Board had received multiple written appeals (including one I authored). Finally, when the legislature indicated that it was willing to protect religious liberty on campus, Vanderbilt responded by threatening to opt out of Tennessee’s managed-care Medicaid program, causing massive disruption in medical care for Nashville’s poorest citizens.

As disappointing as this conduct is, it’s not inconsistent with past behavior. Last year, Vanderbilt was caught unlawfully requiring applicants to a nursing residency program to sign a pledge that they’d participate in abortions. Vanderbilt’s initial reaction was to deny wrongdoing, but one day later the university reversed course and changed its blatantly unlawful policy.

#more#Faced with this pattern of behavior, last night the Tennessee legislature came through, passing by overwhelming margins a bill that would force Vanderbilt either to apply the alleged all-comers policy to fraternities and sororities or grant Christian groups the right to choose leaders that share the group’s faith. The bill (which also protects religious liberty at state public universities) now goes to Governor Haslam for his signature. While many Tennessee legislators deserve credit for standing firm in the face of Vanderbilt’s threats and deception, Representative Bill Dunn and Senator Mae Beavers played critical roles.  

Ironies, of course, abound. Vanderbilt — which has spent the better part of 18 months first violating the conscience rights of its nursing students then trying to interfere with the most vital internal operations of private students groups (their leadership decisions) — was left pleading with the legislature that an annual recipient of literally hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars should be left alone. In fact, such special pleading is common not just in elite, taxpayer-funded private universities. Universities receive billions of dollars in state and federal funds yet constantly lobby and argue for maximum authority and autonomy to limit student freedom and impose their own “university values.”

The ball is now in Governor Haslam’s court. Will he stand for religious liberty and against Vanderbilt’s mendacity, hypocrisy, and anti-Christian discrimination? We’ll soon see.


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