Cover Story

Troubling trends

"Troubling trends" Continued...

Issue: "Back to School," Sept. 7, 2013

—Casey Luskin coordinates research at the Discovery Institute

fightingback.jpg

arrows_1.jpgBanned in Nashville

by Leigh Jones

During the 2012-2013 academic year, Vanderbilt administrators told members of the InterVarsity Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF) at Vanderbilt University that they could not wear T-shirts with “Vanderbilt” on them. GCF gave in and printed shirts simply saying “WE ARE HERE” in large letters across the back, with the group’s logo on the front.

GCF was not alone. Administrators succeeded in making 13 other Christian groups also nonpersons on campus: The organizations couldn’t use Vanderbilt’s name, reserve rooms for on-campus meetings, or attend the annual organization fair where most students learn about the clubs they can join. GCF’s influx of new students was about half that of previous years.

The reason for the administration’s attack on dissident Christians: In January 2012, Vanderbilt adopted a “nondiscrimination” policy that forced all student-led religious groups to accept leaders who might not share the beliefs of the group. Sparked by one group’s decision to remove an openly gay student from elected office, the policy would have governed other aspects of orthodoxy as well. For example, under the policy groups would be powerless to remove a Bible study leader who suddenly decided he no longer believed in scriptural inerrancy.

GCF and the 13 other groups did not sign the policy. School administrators banned them while continuing to say they support religious diversity on campus, and even made one ironic request: Although the Catholic student group refused to sign the policy, school administrators still wanted a Catholic priest to serve as an official campus chaplain. Somewhat reluctantly, John Sims Baker agreed to fill that role, taking an office in the school’s Religious Life building even though his student group no longer exists as far as the school is concerned. Baker vocally opposed Vanderbilt’s discrimination and consistently refuted administrators’ claims they weren’t trying to target religious groups. 

About a half dozen evangelical Christian groups, including Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), chose to sign the policy and continue operating under the school’s authority. Whereas GCF allows students to pick their leaders, RUF relies more on the guidance of an ordained campus minister. The policy does allow the school to punish a group like RUF if the campus minister decided to remove a student from a leadership role, but until that happens, RUF plans to continue operating on campus as usual. 

Although dissatisfied with a lack of resolution to the situation at Vanderbilt, GCF ministry staff member Tish Warren last year took heart that many universities, even private colleges with the freedom to restrict religious liberty on campus, chose not to: “We weren’t able to change the argument at Vanderbilt—we lost that battle. We hopefully influenced a better conversation [nationally] about religious identity and how that needs to be preserved and not stamped out.”

Both Warren and Greg Jao, national field director for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, called Tufts University’s decision to allow religious groups to set their own criteria for leadership a harbinger of the approach more schools are taking. InterVarsity’s almost 900 campus groups ran into more challenges from administrators last year than in previous years but managed to resolve most of the incidents, Jao said.

One that wasn’t adequately resolved: At Colby College, a private college in Waterville, Maine, administrators revoked InterVarsity’s official student group status but gave them equal services and access to school facilities and funding under a religious group designation. Jao worries about the larger cultural implications of an approach that contributes to the long-term privatization of religious groups: “The idea is that [those who disagree] can avoid them by just not looking.”

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