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Photo by Randi Anglin/Genesis

Vanderbilt squeeze

Back to School | Christian ministries plan their futures under university's new policy against religious groups

Issue: "School choice," Aug. 25, 2012

NASHVILLE, Tenn.-Twenty graduate students sat in Tish Warren's living room in May 2011. Finished with final exams, they had gathered, bleary-eyed, for the annual Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF) end-of-year party. Normally, they spent the gathering reminiscing about the previous semester and listening to new graduates talk about their future plans. But as Warren, 33, cleaned up after dinner and listened to the conversation from the other room, she detected worry rather than relief.

A week earlier, an email from Vanderbilt University's Office of Religious Life had arrived in Warren's inbox. She expected the message to contain the annual acknowledgement that GCF, which is affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, was welcome to operate on campus again in the fall. But the email announced that GCF was now on provisional status because GCF's constitution, which requires student leaders to sign a statement of faith, violated Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy.

Warren knew that GCF hadn't made any changes to its constitution or application in more than 10 years. She hadn't received any notice that the school had changed policies. This must be a mistake, she thought. After all, what did the school plan to do, kick all the orthodox Christian groups off campus? The idea seemed absurd. (A Methodist bishop founded Vanderbilt in 1873.) She told the graduate students at the end-of-the-year party that she would have the misunderstanding cleared up by the start of the fall semester.

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But almost a year later, Warren slumped in her chair at a crowded coffee shop on the edge of campus. She slowly spun her cup around in its saucer, dissolving the frothy design in the top of her latte as she explained the previous year's struggle.

It had started when a member of Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi accused the group of forcing him out of leadership because he is gay. The student's complaint prompted administrators to reconsider whether religious groups should be able to restrict membership or leadership based on faith. Administrators decided that requiring students to share certain beliefs in order to join a group amounted to discrimination. When Christian groups protested, administrators compared them to racists who opposed desegregation in the 1960s.

Through many meetings Warren was patient, but finally she asked, "Do you really think that if I want our Bible study leaders to affirm the resurrection of Jesus, that's the same as saying that I don't want black people in my group? Do you really think that's the same thing?" Their response-creedal discrimination is still discrimination-ended the discussion.

Three months later, on Jan. 20, Vanderbilt administrators publicly announced the school's nondiscrimination policy. They described it as an "all-comers" policy, requiring all groups to be open to all students. They demanded that four Christian groups-GCF, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Christian Legal Society, and Beta Upsilon Chi-remove clauses in their constitutions requiring leaders to sign statements of faith. Student groups would also have to sign an affirmation of the nondiscrimination policy in order to retain official status.

By May, 14 Christian groups announced they could not abide by the policy and would operate as unofficial organizations for the 2012-13 school year.

Warren sighed heavily as she contemplated Vanderbilt's future: "If what we're calling pluralism is really a post-Christian, militant relativism, then what does it mean for a Christian to be a redemptive force in culture? If our ideology isn't welcomed as another idea at the table, do we need to be a little more Amish, a little more separate?"

At another coffee shop on the other side of campus, three members of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) squeezed around a table, talking about their plans for next year. Justin Gunter and Beth Roper, both rotating off the group's leadership team, looked tired after a year-long fight with administrators. In addition to his role as CLS president, Gunter served as spokesman for the coalition of Christian groups opposing the school's new policy. Although they weren't happy with the outcome, they were glad the fight was over, at least for now.

Incoming CLS president Parker Hancock said he was not giving up on holding events on campus, despite the group's renegade status. Professors have offered to use their status to help CLS reserve campus space for events. He planned to strengthen relations with Nashville churches and use Facebook and Twitter instead of weekly law school emails to publicize events: "I think we'll probably, ultimately be OK. ... It's just a matter of what does that look like? To what extent is this going to be a combination of restriction versus renewal?"

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