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April 20th, 2012
11:12 AM ET

Vanderbilt’s policy change: confronting discrimination or infringing on religious freedom?

By Dan Merica, CNN

(CNN)-– What was once just a policy review by Vanderbilt University has morphed into a national debate over religious freedom, and now outside Christian groups are not only chiming in on the debate, but also buying television advertisements in Nashville, the school's backyard.

At the heart of the issue is a nondiscrimination policy that would allow any university student to join any campus organization and be allowed a shot at club leadership. Eleven religious groups on campus are concerned that the integrity of their organizations will be violated by the rule.

“What really is on the line is the integrity of our organization,” said Brant Bonetti, a senior at Vanderbilt and the former president of Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity. “If the leader is the face of the organization and you can’t define their values as they match the organization, how can you be sure that they will follow the mission of that organization?”

The eleven religious groups have started a coalition, Vanderbilt Solidarity, in protest of the new policy.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

According to university rules, groups who don’t comply would not be allowed to register as a student organization but would be welcomed on campus in an unofficial capacity. The benefit of registering as a club on campus is the university then funds the club's budget.

For many, the larger issue with the rule is that fraternities and sororities are given exemptions based on gender. A fraternity could outlaw women and a sorority could outlaw men. That exemption does not extend to religious groups, so an atheist could become the leader of a Christian group and a Jewish student could become the leader of a Muslim student organization.

“We don’t view this debate as one about religious freedom; it is about nondiscrimination,” said Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs at Vanderbilt. “It has been interesting and unfortunate that third party organizations and out-of-state groups would spend time and resources injecting themselves in what is a student organization matter at a private university.”

Fortune was responding to a television ad that the New Jersey-based group Americans United for Freedom ran in the Nashville area. “Why is Vanderbilt University forcing student groups to abandon their beliefs,” questions the ad.

“To me, this is political correctness going into 'Alice and Wonderland' proportions and through the looking glass. Down is up and up is down,” said Richard Land, president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

Land, who lives in Nashville, says this marks the next step in a religious freedom debate that has played out over the past few months. “Nothing happens in a vacuum,” Land said.

Religious leaders around the country have charged that the Obama administration has been increasingly hostile toward religion. Earlier this year, Department of Health and Human Services finalized plans that would require church-affiliated organizations to offer private health care that would include contraceptives. After a back-and-forth with a variety of Christian leaders, most notably the Catholic Church, the rule was amended and some religious organizations were given an exemption. The move placated some but not all the groups who opposed the mandate, and the stigma against the Obama administration in some religious circles remains.

“I think this rule does touch on this much wider religious freedom debate going on in our country,” said Father John Sims Baker, Chaplin of Vanderbilt Catholic. “I do think the religious groups at Vanderbilt are being singled out in a way that other groups are not.”

Vanderbilt Catholic, in response to the rule, has decided they will not register as a student organization in the coming school year. Baker said the group will continue to offer Mass to students.

“We are just trying to be straightforward with the university,” Baker said. “Our student board just found that we are in a dilemma. When the registration came out, we said we just can’t register.”

According the Fortune, the university has had the same nondiscrimination policy since the early 1990s, and it wasn’t until a gay student alleged he was discriminated against by the Beta Upsilon Chi fraternity based on his sexual orientation that questions about the policy arose.

“We started reviewing all student organization constitutions and applications and it became somewhat evident that in some cases, the organization did not understand the nondiscrimination policy,” Fortune said.

Bonetti, the chapter’s president at the time, refused to comment but did acknowledge the situation.

“We have an ongoing appeal with the university about the issue you would read about in the Vanderbilt student media. The reason our organization has yet to publicly comment is that it is an ongoing process,” said Bonetti, who went on to draw a distinction between the decision his fraternity made and the decisions they would be forced to make under the campus' new rules.

In response to the rule, Bonetti and others handed out 4,000 digital video players around campus, protesting Vanderbilt’s anti-discrimination policy. The video features a number of students and alumni speaking out against it.

According to school officials, the university has always abided by this policy, but it wasn’t until recently that they put it in the rulebook. Additionally, the university provided CNN with a list of student groups, including Presbyterian Student Fellowship, Vanderbilt Baptist Campus Ministries and Vanderbilt Hillel, a Jewish student group, who have all agreed to comply with the rule.

“We are pleased that Vanderbilt continues to offer our students a wide variety of registered student organizations that represent the diversity of our students and their interests. It is reassuring that many of our current religious organizations understand that our nondiscrimination policy poses no threat to their religious freedom,” Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCarty said in a press release.

He continued: “Obviously, we are disappointed that some religious groups have either not applied for registered student status or submitted applications that do not comply with the policy. We will continue our conversations with them into the next academic year.”

In response to the rule change, Rep. Bill Dunn confronted the decision in an amendment he proposed to the Tennessee House of Representatives Education Committee.

There is a bill in the Tennessee House that would outlaw rules like the one Vanderbilt has adopted at state universities and colleges. Dunn’s amendment would expand that rule, enforcing it on any private university or college that takes $24 million from the state. According to Dunn, Vanderbilt falls under that policy.

“From Vanderbilt’s perspective, we have had a long and successful partnership with the state of Tennessee,” Fortune said. “I think this amendment puts at risk our relationship and potentially the services we offer the state.”

Dunn acknowledged Vanderbilt’s history in Tennessee but said his response shows how people are tired of “injustice” and “hypocrisy.”

“Nobody likes to see an injustice, and I think some of us get tired of these groups who are very liberal leaning institutions like the university who talk about no discrimination,” Dunn said. “There is just a real injustice and hypocrisy.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Culture wars

soundoff (678 Responses)
  1. Tim

    How would Vanderbuilt feel if Tennessee did the same thing to them that they did to the Christian group? The Supreme Court just upheld the righs of religious groups to determine their own leadership (completely rejecting claims that discrimination laws applied to them.) TN should tell VU that their status allowing them to opperate in the state is dependent on their following federal laws respecting religious freedom, and let them know that should they fail to respect religious freedom, they could not opperate in the state.

    April 28, 2012 at 10:12 pm |
    • Ryan

      Religious freedom is extremely important to me, but I'm not exactly sure that I understand how this is a religious freedom issue. Groups that only welcome a particular demographic can continue to operate, just not as officially sanctioned student organizations with Vanderbilt funds. Religious groups can continue to operate as long as all are welcome to be members. Groups elect their own leaders, so if the group wants someone with a particular quality to be part of leadership it can elect that person.

      May 3, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
  2. waitasec

    why are these religious zealots the biggest cry babies?
    i thought gawd was on their side...

    then again, maybe not.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:10 pm |
  3. waitasec

    At the heart of the issue is a nondiscrimination policy that would allow any university student to join any campus organization and be allowed a shot at club leadership. Eleven religious groups on campus are concerned that the integrity of their organizations will be violated by the rule.

    “What really is on the line is the integrity of our organization,” said Brant Bonetti, a senior at Vanderbilt and the former president of Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity. “If the leader is the face of the organization and you can’t define their values as they match the organization, how can you be sure that they will follow the mission of that organization?”

    none sense.
    who's going to elect someone they don't know in their elitist club?

    lame.

    April 23, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • Rg3

      Its not non sense if anyone is allowed membership than all of those people would be allowed a vote. they could stack the deck and elect someone whose values and beliefs do not match up with the organization

      April 26, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  4. Prayer changes things

    Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things,

    April 23, 2012 at 8:50 am |
    • Jesus

      "Prayer changes things"

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!.!.

      April 23, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Jay Dubb

      The Bible doesn't say that prayer always gets you what you want. That is your misconception and why you claim prayer is useless and does not work. A Christian should know that he shouldn't expect a new Porsche or something else just because HE wants it. If God gave everybody what they wanted the world be even more chaotic than it is now. We pray and if it is in harmony with God's will he will see to it that it happens. Prayer is also not limited (nor should it be) to asking for things that you want to happen; prayer is an open and direct communication line to your heavenly Father and Creator, and you may want to tell him how you feel sometime, even if you think it's a bunch of nonsense and you don't think he will reply. You may be surprised.

      April 23, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Jesus

      "Prayer is also not limited (nor should it be) to asking for things that you want to happen; prayer is an open and direct communication line to your heavenly Father and Creator, and you may want to tell him how you feel sometime, even if you think it's a bunch of nonsense and you don't think he will reply. You may be surprised."

      Prayer does not because your god doesn't exist that's the whole point. LOL!

      April 23, 2012 at 4:31 pm |
    • Fn0rdz

      Prayer actually does change things.... it changes the mindset of the person praying. As far as changing things outside of the mind of the praying person, there's no proof it can influence the outcome of any external event.

      April 23, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
    • Amused

      Teaching children to beg for favors from an imaginary fairy in the sky IS NOT HEALTHY FOR CHILDREN AND OTHER LIVING THINGS! Teaching children the TRUE nature of science, physics, math and biology IS VERY HEALTHY for children and other living things!

      April 26, 2012 at 1:55 pm |
  5. Vinny

    Yawn. Christian fraternity and sorority? Partying in the name of God?

    April 23, 2012 at 5:59 am |
  6. Trestle Rider

    Should the math club be forced to allow membership and leadership opportunity to an indivdual who is diamatrically opposed to math and instead promotes metaphysics?

    Should the exercise club be forced to allow membership and leadership opportunity to an individual who is diametrically opposed and instead promotes lethargy?

    Should the environmental club be forced to allow membership and leadership opportunity to an individual who is diamaterically opposed and instead promotes rapid exploitation of natural resources with total disregard for pollution?

    You say, they would not be voted into leadership, so why worry. Well, there could be infiltratation resulting in a vote that still goes against rhe club's core beliefs.

    In particular, Christian organizations often attract opposing forces bent on destroying them. Why are we helping them to succeed?

    April 23, 2012 at 3:40 am |
    • Birch please

      Why are we helping them to succeed?...... because this is not Iran

      April 23, 2012 at 1:57 pm |
    • Trestle Rider

      Birch: So destroying Christian groups is a good thing in your book, right? Or just all religious groups? I believe you are a comment troll desparate to belittle Christianity wherever and whenever.

      Allowing a club to admit members, or allow leadership opportunity, to individuals that believe as they do does not infringe on an individual's right to join any alternate club or start their own.

      April 23, 2012 at 3:00 pm |
    • Amused

      Tres – "Allowing a club to admit members, or allow leadership opportunity, to individuals that believe as they do does not infringe on an individual's right to join any alternate club or start their own." You are correct! But, you also have to realize that no one is prohibiting you or your club from being bigoted nor from discriminating against anyone you don't particularly like! You can run your "christian" organization as "unchristianlike" as you want! The school will STILL welcome you, they just won't give any funding because of FEDERAL rules! No one is "preventing" ANYTHING! The only issue here is the use of FEDERAL PUBLIC funds to only support organizations that abide by FEDERAL rules! It is as simple as that!

      April 26, 2012 at 10:35 am |
  7. jabby

    Did not Christ command His church to love one another and their enemies and to teach all men and nations, Jews and Gentiles, to do the same? Who but a true child of God would teach and obey such a "new" commandment? Hence, will God gather the wheat in His storehouse and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire, which is already started.

    April 23, 2012 at 2:46 am |
  8. mikstov33

    Another example of the Fairness Doctrine.....

    April 22, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
  9. Jesse

    Someone should use this rule to start up a basketball club or some other fun adventure club and exclude any christians and see how upset the christian organizations get. Then just say "how is this different from your clubs? It's legal under the rule you championed.

    April 22, 2012 at 10:44 am |
    • Trestle Rider

      To Jesse: Your analogy is false. To match the current argument, the adventure club would be forced to allow a leader who does not believe in adventure and instead actively promotes immobility as the alternative.

      April 23, 2012 at 3:19 am |
    • Birch please

      Tristle, yeah except that the organization needs to elect its leader. If they elect an immobile leader than that is democracy.

      April 23, 2012 at 1:59 pm |
    • Rg3

      Birch, thats like saying lets let Iran vote for our next president because that is democracy.

      April 26, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  10. Haime52

    It is a prime example of what happens when you do not self fund and rely on single source funding from government or, in this case, the administration of the university. They get to make the rules. Simple solution, move off campus or don't register for their funding. Problem solved!

    April 21, 2012 at 5:57 pm |
  11. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things,

    April 21, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
    • Matt Begley

      This is an uninformed bigoted statement. This implies that reality is unhealthy for children and other living things which is absurd. Prayer... the only thing prayer does is let those doing the praying believe that they have actually done something when in reality they haven't done anything. As for what is healthy for children, religion is at the bottom of the list. Threatening children with eternal torture is not healthy if they don't believe rediculous myths is unhealthy. People wasting time trying to get into a non-existant Heaven instead of working together to create Heaven here on Earth is unhealthy. Over 800,000,000 people have been killed in the name of God... does that sound healthy?

      April 22, 2012 at 2:48 pm |
    • just sayin

      Wake up and smell the coffee Matt, atheism isn't reality, and prayer or talking with God is the best resource mankind has. God bless

      April 22, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Jesus

      Prayer doesn’t not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs!.!.*

      April 23, 2012 at 11:09 am |
    • Amused

      Just Say – You say that atheism isn't reality, but you think begging for favors from an imaginary being IS REALITY???????
      WOW!, I will choose atheism ANY day over making delusional appeals to imaginary beings!

      April 26, 2012 at 11:59 am |
  12. J Denny

    Pretty simple, these 11 religious groups don't have to let the university funding and they can exclude anyone they want. Funny how the religious groups are the ones wanting to exclude others. Isn't that contrary to what Jesus would do – unless the others were tax collectors. Seems the motto of christians has changed recently from "Love thy neighbor" to "It's all about me". They have certainly turned into a hateful lot.

    April 21, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • Rg3

      They dont want to exclude anyone from being a member or from coming to a Bible study they just want the freedom to choose their leaders based off of their values and beliefs.

      April 26, 2012 at 4:15 pm |
  13. Reality

    For those Christian groups at Vanderbilt, a prayer:

    ONLY FOR THE NEWCOMERS:

    The Apostles' Creed 2011: (updated by yours truly and based on the studies of historians and theologians of the past 200 years)

    Should I believe in a god whose existence cannot be proven
    and said god if he/she/it exists resides in an unproven,
    human-created, spirit state of bliss called heaven??

    I believe there was a 1st century CE, Jewish, simple,
    preacher-man who was conceived by a Jewish carpenter
    named Joseph living in Nazareth and born of a young Jewish
    girl named Mary. (Some say he was a mamzer.)

    Jesus was summarily crucified for being a temple rabble-rouser by
    the Roman troops in Jerusalem serving under Pontius Pilate,

    He was buried in an unmarked grave and still lies
    a-mouldering in the ground somewhere outside of
    Jerusalem.

    Said Jesus' story was embellished and "mythicized" by
    many semi-fiction writers. A descent into Hell, a bodily resurrection
    and ascension stories were promulgated to compete with the
    Caesar myths. Said stories were so popular that they
    grew into a religion known today as Catholicism/Christianity
    and featuring dark-age, daily wine to blood and bread to body rituals
    called the eucharistic sacrifice of the non-atoning Jesus.

    Amen
    (references used are available upon request)

    April 21, 2012 at 4:43 pm |
    • .....

      Total copy paste bull sh it, hit report abuse every time it is posted

      April 22, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
  14. mdblanche

    So let's see. These groups are funded by the university, which raises the money by charging students mandatory fees. Now if they want to keep their funding they're going to have to do what the university tells them, including letting any student join a group they're helping to pay for. These groups claim this violates their religious freedom. Would we consider forcing taxpayers to fund churches they couldn't join religious freedom? Shouldn't these groups have thought of this before asking someone else to pay their bills?

    April 21, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
    • Quick

      We fund churches with government money already. Illegal? Yes. Does anyone do anything about it? Sometimes.

      April 22, 2012 at 12:47 am |
    • MSM2

      They are not funded by VU money. Registered status simply allows them access to things like meeting space and tables at new student orientation and permission to distribute fliers, etc.

      April 22, 2012 at 8:22 am |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.