Four Christian groups at Vanderbilt University soon could be kicked off campus as school administrators quietly adopt a policy that prohibits student organizations from holding members or leaders to any standard of belief or behavior.
Representatives from Christian Legal Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Graduate Christian Fellowship and Beta Upsilon Chi are negotiating with school officials in hopes of persuading them to reverse their decision. But Jim Lundgren, director of collegiate ministries for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, said they are preparing for the likelihood of becoming “third-class citizens” at Vanderbilt: “We all see the handwriting on the wall.”
What’s happening at Vanderbilt is part of a national trend. Last year, only two InterVarsity chapters faced challenges from university administrators over the groups’ right to pick leaders, or remove them, based on their beliefs. This year, 15 chapters have run afoul of school nondiscrimination policies.
Faced with increasing opposition from school administrations, some Christian groups, including InterVarsity, are preparing for what they fear is an inevitable break with the official university system. Unless the U.S. Supreme Court intervenes, religious organizations could soon be relegated to the fringes of college life.
Two cases, one decided at the high court last year and one that could end up there next year, are redefining discrimination and religious liberty on campus.
In CLS v. Martinez, which involved a chapter of the Christian Legal Society at Hastings Law School in California, the justices upheld the school’s right to adopt an “all-comers” policy that forces student organizations to abandon all membership restrictions.
In ADX v. Reed, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the California State University system, which does not have an “all-comers policy,” could prohibit membership restrictions based only on certain criteria, including religious beliefs. The Alliance Defense Fund, which also argued CLS v. Martinez, plans to ask the high court to consider the California case. Its decision will determine whether religious organizations can maintain their autonomy and their status as official school groups.
Officials at Vanderbilt, in Nashville, Tenn., began reviewing the constitutions of all official student groups last year when members of Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi removed one of the group’s leaders after he revealed he was gay and engaged in a sexual relationship. During the review, administrators found 11 groups with constitutions that violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy.
“In order to be a registered student organization — which means using the Vanderbilt name, having the opportunity to apply for funding from student activity fees and access to university resources — opportunities for membership and leadership must be accessible to all,” said Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs, in a written statement.
When asked whether the school had any other option for the Christian groups as an alternative to revoking their official status, Fortune would only say that the administrators were still discussing that issue.