FAQ Regarding Vanderbilt’s Treatment of Religious Students
Read more about Christian groups and the Vandy policy
- How has Vanderbilt restricted religious student groups?
- But isn’t it discrimination for religious groups to choose their leaders according to their religious beliefs?
- Are only four groups affected at Vanderbilt?
- What have the religious groups done to defend their religious liberty?
- What would solve the problem?
- Isn’t Vanderbilt just doing what other universities are doing?
- Has Vanderbilt changed its policy?
- What specifically does the new policy do?
- How can the Administration say it is applying its policy to all student groups when it specifically exempts “single-sex organizations” such as fraternities and sororities, a cappella groups, and same-sex club sports teams?
- What are the religious groups being asked to sign?
- Isn’t Vanderbilt just treating the religious groups like all other student groups?
- Doesn’t Title IX require Vanderbilt to give fraternities special treatment?
- Didn’t the Supreme Court say that what the Administration is doing is permissible?
- Does any federal or state law require the Administration to prohibit religious groups from having religious leaders?
- How does the First Amendment apply here?
- Why should this matter to others?
- How has the Tennessee Legislature acted to protect religious liberty?
How has Vanderbilt restricted religious student groups?
Last year, the Vanderbilt Administration told four student groups (Christian Legal Society, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Graduate Christian Fellowship, and Beta Upsilon Chi) that they would lose recognition if they continued to require their leaders to agree with the groups’ religious beliefs. Departing from its long-standing policy that protected religious groups, the Administration decreed that religious groups could no longer:
But isn’t it discrimination for religious groups to choose their leaders according to their religious beliefs?
It is common sense, not discrimination, for a religious group to expect its leaders to agree with the group’s religious beliefs. Federal and state nondiscrimination laws typically allow religious organizations to hire according to their religious beliefs. The government recognizes that, in order to maintain their religious identities and voices, religious groups must be led by persons who share the groups’ religious beliefs. Nondiscrimination policies are supposed to protect religious students -- not be used to hound religious students from campus. Most universities understand this, but Vanderbilt has taken an extreme position. In contrast, many universities explicitly allow religious groups to require their leaders to agree with the groups’ religious beliefs.
Are only four groups affected at Vanderbilt?
No. Thirteen student groups have joined together to resist the Administration’s demand that religious groups surrender the right to have their leaders agree with their religious beliefs. Those groups are: Asian American Christian Fellowship, Vanderbilt Catholic, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Cru, Medical Christian Fellowship, Navigators, Graduate Christian Fellowship, Bridges International, St. Thomas More Society, Lutheran Student Fellowship, Every Nation Ministries, Beta Upsilon Chi, and Christian Legal Society.
Father Baker, chaplain to the Vanderbilt Catholic student group, wrote an eloquent letter to the Administration explaining why the Administration’s demand places an unreasonable burden on religious groups. Tish Warren Henderson wrote a compelling plea for the Administration to respect religious liberty and pluralism.
What have the religious groups done to defend their religious liberty?
After a year of trying to reason with the Administration, on March 26, Vanderbilt Catholic announced that it would leave campus rather than comply with the policy and also reiterated the reasons that led to this decision. St. Thomas More Society plans to follow a similar course.
On April 9, 2012, eleven Solidarity groups submitted their requests for recognition with faith requirements that were approved in prior years. Their constitutions and affirmation forms continue to require their leaders to agree with their religious beliefs. The Solidarity groups hope the University will reconsider its policy when it realizes that its actions over the past year have only increased the religious students’ resistance (from four to thirteen groups).
What would solve the problem?
The current impasse between religious students and the Administration would be easily resolved if a single sentence were placed in both the University’s written nondiscrimination policy and the affirmation form: “A student organization whose primary purpose is religious will not be denied registration as a Registered Student Organization on the ground that it limits membership or leadership positions to students who share the religious beliefs of the organization.” (This language is from the University of Florida’s “Student Organization Registration Policy.”)
Isn’t Vanderbilt just doing what other universities are doing?
No. Many universities have policies that respect the right of religious student groups to choose their leaders according to their religious beliefs.
Has Vanderbilt changed its policy?
Yes. For many years, Vanderbilt has recognized religious student groups that required their leaders to agree with their religious beliefs. Indeed Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination policy explicitly protected the right of religious association. In December 2010, the Administration quietly deleted this protection for religious association from the student handbook without warning or input from the student groups. In March 2012, it deleted the protection from the faculty handbook. On March 9, 2012, it announced its new policy, although for some reason, it insists it is not a new policy. But that is plainly not the case.
What specifically does the new policy do?
The new policy lists the various federal nondiscrimination laws that the University must meet. It then states the University’s own policy regarding sexual orientation discrimination. The religious groups have no problem with these parts of the policy. The policy then states: Registered student organizations must be open to all students as members and must permit all members in good standing to seek leadership posts. Single-sex organizations are permissible to the extent allowed under Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, 20 U.S.C. § 1681.
The Administration claims that this means all student groups must be open to all students as members. Again the religious student groups have no problem meeting this policy because they welcome all students to join their groups. The policy then states that groups must permit “all members in good standing to seek leadership posts.” The religious groups generally do not require their leaders to affirm agreement with the groups’ religious beliefs until after they are elected.
But the Administration means more than it states in its policy. It repeatedly has stated that a religious group may not: 1) require a leader, after he or she is elected, to affirm agreement with the group’s religious beliefs; 2) expect a leader to lead Bible studies, prayer, and worship at the group’s meetings; or 3) ask a leader to step down if the leader no longer agrees with the group’s religious beliefs (for example, if a Christian leader became an atheist after elections, as happened a few years ago, according to the Administration).
The Administration’s interpretation of its policy is the problem. It remains adamant that religious groups may not choose their leaders according to their religious beliefs.
How can the Administration say it is applying its policy to all student groups when it specifically exempts “single-sex organizations” such as fraternities and sororities, a cappella groups, and same-sex club sports teams?
It can’t, as is obvious to anyone who reads the policy. Basically, the Administration is not playing fair. It is willing to coerce the religious groups to comply, but it lacks the fortitude to consistently enforce its policy and require the fraternities and sororities to be open to all members and leaders.
The Administration intentionally allows fraternities to discriminate in selecting both members and leaders, while pushing religious groups off-campus simply for requiring their leaders to agree with their religious beliefs. Unlike fraternities and sororities, religious groups welcome all students as members. Religious groups accept all students who want to be members. Fraternities and sororities reject hundreds of students who want to be members every year. More perplexing, the Administration has decided to accept sex discrimination by the fraternities and sororities, while hounding the religious groups off-campus simply for selecting leaders who agree with the groups’ religious beliefs.
Why is the Administration willing to give the fraternities and sororities a broad exemption, while denying the religious groups a narrow exemption? Read the Administration’s own words from its policy explanation (Questions 8 and 9 in their FAQs re their policy) :
“Does the University’s nondiscrimination policy permit single-sex RSOs other than fraternities and sororities? As noted, the University’s policy incorporates and follows Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972. In addition to fraternities and sororities, Title IX provides for certain other single-sex groups. Title IX also permits singing groups to establish requirements based on vocal range or quality that may result in single-sex choruses. But such groups must permit all interested students to try out. Single-sex intramural sports teams are allowed pursuant to Title IX where selection for such teams is based upon competitive skill or where the activity involved is a contact sport.
“Does the University’s nondiscrimination policy permit RSOs to impose faith-based or belief-based requirements for membership or leadership? No. The policy provides that all Vanderbilt students are eligible for membership in all RSOs. The policy requires that any member in good standing of any RSO must be eligible to compete for any leadership post in that RSO. For example, Republicans and Independents are eligible to join the College Democrats, and any member may run for office, though it is up to the members to select their leaders. This is true for all RSOs at Vanderbilt.”
What are the religious groups being asked to sign?
To be recognized, student groups must sign the Administration’s “affirmation form.” The Solidarity groups submitted a signed affirmation form with the following qualifying language:Because in Title VII Congress made clear that it is not discrimination for a religious organization to require its leaders to agree with its religious beliefs, a view which the Supreme Court has twice affirmed, in 2012 in Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and in 1987 in Presiding Bishop v. Amos, this religious organization will continue to require, among its other stated criteria for leadership, that its leaders affirm agreement with the organization’s doctrinal statement and commitment to the organization’s stated purpose, as it has done for many years as a recognized Vanderbilt student organization.
Isn’t Vanderbilt just treating the religious groups like all other student groups?
No. The Administration exempted single-sex organizations from its policy. See Questions 9-10.
Doesn’t Title IX require Vanderbilt to give fraternities special treatment?
No. The Administration’s invocation of Title IX is a red herring. Title IX gives fraternities and sororities an exemption only from the federal Title IX itself, which prohibits sex discrimination in higher education. It does not give fraternities and sororities a blanket exemption from all nondiscrimination laws or policies, including a university’s own nondiscrimination policy.
The Administration had a choice: it could have a policy that applied equally to all student groups, or it could exempt fraternities and sororities so that the policy did not apply to all student groups. It freely chose to give the fraternities and sororities an exemption. It could have given religious groups a similar exemption but refuses, so far, to do so. This is why many fraternities and sororities are concerned about any university adopting policies that deny any student groups the right to choose their leaders according to the groups’ beliefs and purposes.
Didn’t the Supreme Court say that what the Administration is doing is permissible?
No. Actually it said that a public university could not do what the Administration is doing. The Supreme Court has said that a public university may deny all student groups the right to limit their leadership and membership to students who affirm the groups’ beliefs. But the policy must apply to all student groups across the board without any exceptions. By making an exception for single-sex groups, the Vanderbilt Administration policy is an impermissible policy.
In January 2012, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that nondiscrimination laws may not be used to prohibit religious groups from deciding who their leaders will be. Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, No. 10-553, 2012 WL 75047 (U.S. Jan. 11, 2012). While the case involved a religious school’s employment decision regarding a teacher, it spoke broadly of “a religious group’s right to shape its own faith and mission through its appointments” and “the selection of those who will personify its beliefs.” Id. at *11.
Does any federal or state law require the Administration to prohibit religious groups from having religious leaders?
No. Six leading religious liberty scholars sent the Administration a letter explaining that no federal or state law, regulation, or court ruling required the Administration to adopt this policy or prohibit religious groups from having religious criteria for their leaders. Twenty-three members of Congress sent the Administration a letter condemning its harassment of the religious student groups.
How does the First Amendment apply here?
Vanderbilt is a private university so it does not have to respect students’ religious liberty or freedoms of speech and association, although it claims to respect religious liberty and diversity.
Why should this matter to others?
The Administration is violating three basic principles upon which America’s experiment in self-government is built:
How has the Tennessee Legislature acted to protect religious liberty?
On May 30, the Tennessee General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to protect the right of religious groups to have religious requirements for leaders and members at state universities. The bill also had a provision, which would sunset in one year, that any private, secular university receiving $24 million in state funding must apply the same leadership and membership policy to fraternities that it applies to religious groups. The bill passed by margins of 61-22 in the House and 19-12 in the Senate.
The Vanderbilt religious students’ gratitude for the legislature’s gift of “breathing space” was short-lived because Governor Haslam was reported on May 3, 2012, to be planning to veto the legislation, his first veto since his election two years ago. The governor’s number is (615) 741-2001.