Vanderbilt Strips Religious Group of Recognition For Requiring Officers To Have Religious Commitment

I have previously discussed the collision between anti-discrimination laws and free exercise of religion. Now, Vanderbilt University has stripped a Christian student organization of official recognition (and presumably funding) because it requires its members to have a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.

On one hand, the move reflects the university’s view that school-supported groups must be open to all students. The Supreme Court in March turned down a similar case.

The group’s constitution stated “Criteria for officer selection will include level and quality of past involvement, personal commitment to Jesus Christ, commitment to the organization, and demonstrated leadership ability.” The group was reportedly not approved because the university took issue with a requirement that leaders have a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ.” They were told to remove the requirement, which would seem a reasonable expectation for members.

University Provost Richard McCarty insisted that it was merely “rejecting discrimination and not . . . restricting religious freedom.”

I fully understand the anti-discrimination policy and support it. However, the rule has a disparate impact on religious groups. Most religious are exclusionary on the basis of faith and students who create these groups are not looking for debates over religion but a shared faith. I find the question a close one but I tend to favor the groups when it comes to officers of the group. If all students are allowed into a student group, it does not seem unreasonable to limit officers to those who believe in the faith-based purpose of the group. Of course, the university is trying to avoid a slippery slope problem where the next group might use race or gender to limit candidates for officer positions. Yet, those are immutable characteristics while this criteria merely limits the officers to those who believe in or have a commitment to the mission.

What do you think?

Source: USA Today and NPR.

27 thoughts on “Vanderbilt Strips Religious Group of Recognition For Requiring Officers To Have Religious Commitment”

  1. bigfatmike, unfortunately culture doesn’t neccesitate “Good” or “hoity toity”. We live in a culture of corruption here in the good ole US of Ayyyy.

  2. Blouise, lordee mercee, get my smelling salts. I feel faint, light headed, dizzy. I would take my stand but I can’t keep my feet. Some one used Vanderbilt and culture in the same sentence and it is not a spelling error.

    What culture could you possibly be referring to? Beer drinking culture? The high culture of the Grand Ole Opry?

    If they have culture there at Vanderbilt they must have interred it with the bones of Cornelius for safe keeping.

    Or maybe you were making a cruel joke.

  3. “This background may help explain why Vanderbilt is so reluctant to accept religious credentials as a prerequiste to anything on its campus.” (mespo)

    This is an important point, in my opinion. It is part of the culture of Vanderbilt and thus a factor in their decision making process.

  4. @Holmes, Appleton,

    Do you support university funding for groups dedicated to racial minorities? Or is the campus Asian group alright to receive funding so long as it allows people of any race to be officers. Would it be okay for the group to require a “personal commitment to the Asian campus community”? Or would that be discriminatory and require stripping recognition and funding?

    I’m trying to spot a substantive distinction, but all I see are semantic and political ones.

  5. Vanderbilt is a private institution and can fund or recognize who it pleases, and it’s history may be instructive on this topic. Until 1914, Vandy was under the auspicess of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A dispute arose in 1914 concerning who controlled the appointment to the Board of Trust. The trustees demanded the right to pick the board free from Church intervention and the Church disagreed. The divorce was bitter. The upshot was that Vanderbilt severed it’s relationship with the Church and made it’s own appointments.

    This background may help explain why Vanderbilt is so reluctant to accept religious credentials as a prerequiste to anything on its campus.

  6. After reading your comments, it seems to me that there are two very distinct issues.

    The first has to do with discrimination. I personally don’t have a problem with requiring club leaders to at least give lip service to the goals of the club. Of course many of you disagree.

    The second issue has to do with funding of faith based organizations. Vanderbilt is a private institution so that is not really an issue in the article. But it would seem that many state universities will face similar situations. It seems to me that state institutions might have a real problem funding what are essentially religious organizations.

    I can’t address the legal issues. But I might have real problems if the state university took fees required of students and turned big money over to faith based organizations.

  7. Whether it is a student group who wants funding or in kind support from a university or a hospital that takes in millions of secular tax dollars commitments to any religious belief should result in a refusal by the university or government. If you want a religious organization fund it yourself!

  8. “No one should get personal with a dead guy.” True, especially one that never even existed in the first place, there is no second coming of this guy!

  9. I would side with the university on this issue. I find the dispute analogous to the contraception controversy with the U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In this instance the relevant universe is the student body. The policy is that official recognition and funding is restricted to groups which strictly adhere to non-discrimination rules. That means that faith-based student organizations must be self-funded, a result which ought to be wholly non-controversial in my view.

  10. I find it unusual, to say the least, that I would champion the cause of a religious organization.

    But it seems to me that there is a real benefit in allowing values based organizations to be a part of campus life. And it is hard for me to see how values based organizations can further their objectives without selecting leaders that actually believe in the values.

    Certainly problems and contradictions can arise when the the values espoused are discriminatory and antisocial. But doesn’t it make sense to address those problems when they present themselves?

    @Frankly, I think there probably is a slippery slope. But I am not sure your example nails it. Wouldn’t a club dedicated to Norther European superiority be excluded anyway.

    I think my point is this: if values and objectives of the club are acceptable on campus, then what is the problem with requiring the officers and perhaps the members have an interest and commitment to the objectives of the club?

    And in contrast: if the values of the club are not acceptable on campus, then what difference does it make how open the membership is.

    I wonder if this would have come up is the sailing club had a requirement that club officers have a commitment to small boats and wind power.

  11. Wasn’t there a case recently which ruled a religious organization could fire an employee based on religious beliefs and it was not a violation of their civil rights in doing so? If so I think it would have applicability here. Make the charter ambiguous for officers’ qualifications and if they are not in alighment with the principles of the group boot them out.

    This situation reminds me of a quote from the movie Mad Max:

    Fifi: “All right. From now on as long as the paperwork looks good you guys can do what you want out there.”

    So, shine the school on with their fear and loathing of certain words,(make it read “Officers must have a commitment to the mission of the group.” ) then if there is an issue with the religious commitment of one of the officers boot them out saying “He was not committed to the group mission.” instead of “He was not committed to Jesus Christ.”

  12. Ugh. Jesus. No pun intended. I mean if you have a student group that’s about discussing philosophy, would it be unreasonable to require the group’s officers to have a “personal commitment to the study of philosophy”? Or a group for black students which, even if open to non-black members, required its officers to have a “personal commitment to the needs and concerns of black students”? Commitment isn’t actually the same as faith, but in Evangelical speak such a phrase could be assumed to mean a person is activly seeking a “personal relationship” with Jesus Christ, so faith is implied (note that traditional Protestant, Catholic and Orthodix circles favor a more communal focus than an individual one, as with religions like Islam and Judiasm). It certanly seems the *university* is interpreting “commitment” as meaning faith, and abrring any additional lanaguage in the group’s rules that would demand such an interpretation, this means the university interperting “commitment” from a relgious (and chiefly Evangelical) view and not a secuar one. And that raising the question of why they would do that. Would they interpret “commitment” to mean faith for a secular group?

    I think this needs to be asked, and the university needs to explain itself. You cannot have a narrow intepretation of such commonplace language that applies only to certain groups based on the faith they practice. That in itself is discrimination.

  13. Don – I thought Vandy was a private school; therefore church][state would not apply.
    – – – – –

    OTOH if I had a student group that was open to all but required the officers to have a personal commitment to the natural superiority of Northern Europeans over mud people the ‘slippery slope’ becomes pretty clear.

    I think this decision is kind of silly but I think I see their point. Its a tangled mess.

  14. Vanderbuilt can “recognize” them, but not provide funding.

    Maybe this prevents the Church-State entanglement?

  15. How can this be an issue? A student group that exists for a religious reason presumably would be a voluntary membership and requires something that any person of any ethnic background or any other characteristic (personal or other) could, voluntarily, adhere to. ?? It’s like saying, “only serve as an officer if this group if you really want to support this group’s goals.” I don’t see any slope, slippery or otherwise. Am I missing something?

  16. If I understand this correctly from what is written….officers must have a commitment…. I don’t have a problem with that….. So what’s the religion that is impacted by the deep seated reason for the exclusion……

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