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Campus divide

Religion | A controversial new requirement that religious ministries affirm a nondiscrimination policy has Vanderbilt groups split over what's at stake

Issue: "Return to war?," May 5, 2012

NASHVILLE-At dusk on the first Sunday after Easter, a small procession led by 10 white-robed men filed slowly out of Vanderbilt University's Benton Chapel, the school's interfaith worship space. The leader held high a crucifix. Someone behind him rang bells. A heavy and bitter coil of incense smoke rolled over the rest of the column.

When the students, all members of Vanderbilt Catholic, walked past the library singing "The Chaplet of Divine Mercy," onlookers stopped talking on their cellphones. Students sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe looked up from their laptops, and everyone stared.

"Have mercy on us, and on the whole world," the singers intoned as they wound their way across campus. The chant rang out across grassy commons and reverberated through empty courtyards with a sense of urgency amid the students' battle with school officials over new rules governing campus religious organizations.

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Vanderbilt Catholic is one of 13 Christian groups refusing to comply with the school's controversial new nondiscrimination policy, which requires that any student be allowed to serve in leadership, regardless of whether the student shares the group's beliefs.

The Catholic group says Vanderbilt's new requirement hinders its religious liberty. But two of the largest evangelical Protestant groups on campus-Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) and the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM)-have decided to comply with the private school's new policy, saying they don't expect interference from administrators.

Disagreement over the policy has caused a divide between the Christian groups. Those who oppose the policy lobbied for the school to back down as the April 16 deadline to register for official recognition came and went-but the willingness of RUF and BCM to comply makes it much less likely that administrators will back down. "If we had all stood together, it would have been less likely that anyone would have had to leave campus," said Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt law professor and faculty adviser to the Christian Legal Society. RUF and BCM, she charged, "made a decision that was very self-interested and that does not advance the cause of Christ."

Swain's group was one of four cited last year for having a constitution that did not comply with the school's nondiscrimination policy. For months, Christian Legal Society (CLS), Graduate Christian Fellowship, Beta Upsilon Chi, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes stood alone in opposition to the school's demand they open their leadership positions to all students. But when administrators announced all religious groups would have to comply with the policy, others soon joined the protest.

At the end of March, leaders of Vanderbilt Catholic-the school's largest religious organization-announced they would sever ties with the university. On April 9, a coalition of 11 evangelical Protestant groups, calling themselves Vanderbilt Solidarity, issued a statement opposing the policy and reiterating their intention to move off campus next semester. The same week, a new media campaign organized by Americans United for Freedom began targeting the school's trustees with a petition, letter-writing campaign, and television commercials-all exhorting them to restore religious liberty at the Nashville, Tenn., campus.

But by then, RUF, the official student group of the Presbyterian Church in America, and BCM, which is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, had already applied for official recognition under the new policy. Leaders of both groups say the policy will not stop them from doing what they've always done. "They're not kicking us off campus, and I can still preach the gospel regularly," said Stacey Croft, RUF chaplain. "Until I feel like my integrity, my conscience, and the gospel are compromised, I don't think we need to step off campus."

Bill Choate, who heads collegiate ministries for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said Vanderbilt administrators likewise have not stopped his group's ministry from carrying out its mission: "They have not yet denied us that privilege. They may tomorrow, but they haven't stopped us from operating yet." Choate refused to say whether his group had affirmed the nondiscrimination policy and therefore expected to have its constitution approved by school administrators. But he said the Baptist ministry intended to continue operating on campus as it has since the 1920s.

School administrators started reviewing the constitutions of all student groups after members of Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi removed one of their leaders over his views on homosexuality. Administrators put four groups, including the fraternity, on provisional status because their constitutions all required leaders to adhere to a statement of faith.

Although administrators previously approved the constitutions, they announced they would no longer allow religious groups an exemption to pick or evaluate leaders based on their beliefs. Faced with the prospect of being forced to open leadership positions to students who disagreed with the Christian groups' basic principles, members of the groups packed a town hall-style meeting in late January to protest the changes. Wearing white shirts to show their solidarity, the students urged administrators to reconsider.

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