The Corner

Vanderbilt University’s Assault on Religious Liberty

A remarkable thing is happening down here in Nashville. An old story — a university attempts to throw Christian student groups off campus unless they are open to non-Christian leadership — has a very new twist. Hundreds of Christian students are mobilizing against the policy and challenging the administration directly. Tuesday night, Vanderbilt held a “town hall” to discuss the policy, and the room was packed with students wearing white (the color students chose to signal their protest) and hundreds more were turned away and forced to watch on a live stream. You can read reports of the meeting here and here, and watch the entire three-hour affair here.

A few things stand out. First, (at approximately the 14:00 mark in the video) the university did what universities often do — compare Christian students to segregationists — but the students were not intimidated by the rhetoric. The comparison is offensive in the extreme. The vast majority of these religious student groups are open to all students without regard to race, gender, sexual orientation, or even religion. Many of these students are minorities themselves and several actively work in racial reconciliation ministries. Yet they’re compared to segregationists because they want the same rights that every single off-campus Christian organization in America enjoys — the same rights the Supreme Court unanimously affirmed this year — the right to use faith-based criteria when selecting leaders.   

Second, the university was directly confronted with the contradiction between its purported “all-comers” policy, which mandates that anyone can join or lead any student group, and its massive system of Greek life, with its gender-segregated, highly-exclusive fraternities and sororities (see the 2.53 mark of the video). Such questions strike at the heart of the university’s argument and expose the political reality on campus: Universities are less concerned with “all-comers” than they are with finding a fair-sounding policy hook to exclude orthodox religious viewpoints from campus. If Vanderbilt truly was dedicated to “all-comers,” the fraternity and sorority system would cease to exist — as would gender-segregated intramural sports, men’s glee clubs, and any number of other campus organizations the university, students, and alumni deeply value.

Third, the student activism — which was characterized by intelligence, firmness, and respect — will continue. Vanderbilt’s Board of Trust meets again in the next week, and I have little doubt that the students are planning to make their voice heard once again.  

Something is happening in the American religious community, and these students are the tip of the spear. With dozens of churches facing expulsion from public property in New York because of Mayor Bloomberg’s nonsensical and punitive policy against religious expression, with Catholic and other Christian organizations forced to cover sterilization and birth control services as part of their insurance plans, and with campuses becoming increasingly hostile to religious organizations, we may be witnessing the birth of a mass movement for religious liberty. A nation cannot turn its back on its founding principles without a backlash, we are not a “post-Christian society,” and these Vanderbilt students have now joined New York pastors and Catholic bishops at the vanguard of a defining cultural battle. 

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