Vanderbilt University’s War On Religious Freedom

The drama over student rights and religious freedom continues to rage at Vanderbilt University, as the higher education facility doubled-down this week on enforcing strict rules that some say discriminate against campus religious groups.

At the center of debate is the university’s nondiscrimination policy, which bans student-led faith groups, among others, from requiring leaders to hold specific beliefs.

The policy, which in many ways contradicts theological requirements, has created angst among members of both the student body and the university’s faculty. These opponents see the ban as a crackdown on their freedom of religion and speech. School leaders, though, maintain that the policy is necessary to ensure that all students feel welcome at campus clubs and events.

The Blaze first reported about the situation back in September. Our original coverage provides the background needed to understand how the situation was started:

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, is making headlines after a Christian fraternity, Beta Upsilon Chi, asked an openly gay member to resign. Upon leaving the group, the young man filed a discrimination complaint and now college administrators are trying to figure out whether the campus organization violated the school’s nondiscrimination policy.

Of course, this incident has grown into a much larger controversy in which university administrators are reviewing all student-led organizations. As a result, officials are concerned about specific clauses that five Christian campus groups have in their constitutions.

These clauses require members of the groups to share their religious beliefs, something that didn‘t concern campus administrators until the student’s complaint was made. Now, the school wants the constitutions amended and the controversial clauses dropped.

Vanderbilt Discrimination Policy Said to Hurt Campus Religious GroupsCurrently, four campus groups violate this policy, as they require their leaders to maintain Christian messages. Club heads argue, though, that leaders responsible for planning Bible studies should actually believe in the material they are preaching. The campus groups in question are the Christian Legal Society, Beta Upsilon Chi, Graduate Student Fellowship and Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

At an event on Tuesday evening, the college defended its policies to an audience of over 200 students. Provost Richard McCarthy and Vice Chancellor for University Affairs and Athletics said that the university doesn’t plan to back down. If student groups fail to comply, they will lose their official status with the college. Despite administrators’ insistence, the community forum did provide students with an opportunity to share their opposition and reasoning with policy-makers at the helm.

“The Vanderbilt discrimination policy is directed against the Christian community,” said Leighton Watts, a member of Beta Upsilon Chi, a Christian fraternity (he wasn’t inside the meeting, but he was watching from a computer outside of the venue and commented to media).

“We want to be able to elect our leaders based on our beliefs,” said Joseph Williams, a former student body president at the university. He spoke out against the restrictions during a question and answer period.

McCarthy’s response to this was intriguing: Students can vote for any individual they’d like, but the clubs cannot have written rules banning students who don’t hold specific views from running for leadership roles. He essentially told students not to vote for people with whom they disagree.

Read more here.

Supreme Court Deals Blow to Liberty

by David French

Monday, June 28, 2010, was a landmark day for liberty—but not in the way that most conservatives realize. News outlets led with stories of the Supreme Court’s gun rights ruling in McDonald v. Chicago (Matt Drudge even announced the ruling with one of his famous “siren” graphics) and then quickly shifted their attention to Elena Kagan’s confirmation hearing. Lost in the shuffle was a second Supreme Court decision, one that contains a line of reasoning that threatens our understanding of what liberty is.

That case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, dealt with a seemingly simple issue: Could a university require a Christian student organization to open its leadership and voting membership to those who disagree with the group’s faith or who refuse to abide by its code of conduct? In other words, could the university require a Christian group to be led by Muslims or by people who disregard biblical commands regarding, for example, sexual behavior.

Common sense would dictate that a group should be able to limit its membership and leadership to those who share the group’s purpose. After all, who ever heard of a Republican group led by Democrats, an African-American group led by white supremacists, or a vegetarian group led by cattle ranchers? But this involved a university, where common sense is always trumped by political correctness, and this particular school (Hastings College of Law in San Francisco) said that each student group had to open its membership and leadership to every student on campus.

This “all comers” policy destroys freedom of association—the constitutional liberty to form a group around a shared purpose—and the Christian Legal Society sued to protects its rights. After a long and winding litigation road, the case reached the Supreme Court, and on Monday the court ruled against the Christian group.

The 5-4 decision was written by Justice Ginsburg and was joined by Justices Sotomayor and Breyer. Justices Stevens and Kennedy filing concurring opinions. Justice Alito filed a dissenting opinion, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas.

Justice Ginsburg’s opinion, contains a dangerous contention. To the court’s majority, the Christian Legal Society was simply arguing for special, or “preferential” treatment when it filed suit. According to the court:

“CLS, it bears emphasis, seeks not parity with other organizations, but a preferential exemption from Hastings’ policy. The 1st Amendment shields CLS against state prohibition of the organization’s expressive activity, however exclusionary that activity may be. But CLS enjoys no constitutional right to state subvention of its selectivity.”

Put in plain English, the court is allowing the university to put in place a policy that destroys the free-association right of all student groups, then is accusing the one group with the courage to challenge that action of seeking a “preferential exemption.” Since when did the defense of longstanding constitutional rights become a quest for special treatment?

Underlying the court’s reasoning is a dangerous view of the enormous breadth of government power. In the court’s eyes, students who want to meet in empty classrooms (rooms their tuition and tax dollars pay for) are receiving a government benefit, not exercising a fundamental right. In the court’s eyes, these “benefits” (broadly defined) can be made contingent on forcing citizens to surrender their most basic liberties. Cato’s Roger Pilon summed it up perfectly:

“That is a new standard for constitutionality when it comes to fundamental rights. And if students, whatever their interests or values, cannot form organizations limited to people who share those interests and values, what’s the point of having student organizations at all? In a word, like the mugger who says, “Your money or your life,” today’s opinion enables Hastings to say, “If you want benefits otherwise available to all, you’ve got to give up your right to freedom of association.” No public institution should be able to put people to such a choice.”

Not only is the court’s decision to equate the defense of fundamental rights with a quest for “special rights” legally suspect, it has a pernicious effect in the public square. Many Americans—especially conservatives—are outraged when groups seek special favors or special exemptions from generally applicable laws. To cast the Christian Legal Society in that light brings automatic suspicion to their claims.

The bottom line is that the government—whether acting through Congress or through a university administration—should not have the power to regulate away our fundamental rights. And those groups courageous to stand against such a power grab are defending liberty, not seeking special status.