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Photo by Daniel Dubois/Vanderbilt University

Campus conformity

Education | Christian university groups hope the Supreme Court will protect them from rules that sabotage their mission

Issue: "Border bandits," Dec. 3, 2011

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 Beta Upsilon Chi, Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes 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 themselves 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.

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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, 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 9th 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 later this month 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 actively engaged in a sexual relationship. During the review, administrators found 11 groups with constitutions that violated the school's nondiscrimination policy.

Only the four Christian groups remain in violation. They refuse to strike clauses in their constitutions that require leaders to agree to statements of faith or participate in specific activities, like Bible studies-setting up a showdown with administrators who say official groups can no longer restrict their membership.

"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.

InterVarsity tried working with the administration to resolve their differences, but when efforts at private negotiations failed, the group appealed to alumni and friends of the school's board of trustees. A similar strategy of public pressure worked well for InterVarsity at the University of Puget Sound, in Tacoma, Wash. School administrators reversed their decision to bar InterVarsity from campus after alumnae protested. In the Vanderbilt case, 23 congressmen have joined the campaign, sending a letter last month to Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos asking him not to discriminate against religious groups.

The Vanderbilt case has attracted the most media attention in recent months, but it's just one of dozens of cases playing out on campuses all across the country, said David Cortman, senior counsel with the Alliance Defense Fund. Most adults, who only know what college life was like when they were in school, have no idea how prevalent discrimination against Christians on campus has become, he said.

"The university is supposed to be the marketplace of ideas, but it ends up being the storefront of censorship," he said. "Rather than being wide open to all viewpoints, including some you may disagree with, [administrators] want you to agree with liberal orthodoxy just to maintain equal status on campus."

Cortman was surprised by Vanderbilt's decision to adopt what is essentially an "all-comers" policy since the Supreme Court decision in CLS v. Martinez does not apply to private schools. He does not believe public schools will follow Vanderbilt's lead because an "all-comers" policy would be difficult to enforce equally on a campus with a variety of groups. Schools would have to allow girls to join fraternities and carnivores to lead vegetarian clubs. But more schools could adopt the position held by the University of San Diego and the entire California State University system, which makes that case even more important for the court to hear, he said.

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