April 20th, 2012
11:12 AM ET
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.
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.”
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