Home/Rod Dreher/Vanderbilt hates religious freedom

Vanderbilt hates religious freedom

“We are committed to making our campus a welcoming environment for all of our students,” Vanderbilt  University says. Which is, of course, bullshit. It’s what institutions say when they wish to curtail the religious liberty of their students. It means that Vanderbilt is determined to be unwelcoming to traditional Christians, Jews, and Muslims, who, if they are faithful to the teachings of their respective religions, cannot morally affirm homosexuality.

According to the Nashville Tennessean, Vanderbilt is threatening to yank recognition from a dozen groups, including Christian groups, for not conforming to the university’s diversity policy. The university’s Christian Legal Society is one of those under the gun. From the newspaper:

The Vanderbilt chapter of the Christian Legal Society has rewritten its bylaws to include language that supports the university’s diversity policies. But when Vanderbilt asked the club to remove a requirement that the group president lead Bible studies, the club drew the line.

“Our group will no longer be able to exist,” said law student Justin Gunter, one of the chapter’s leaders.

Understand what the university is requiring: that a group cannot set any conditions for the beliefs its leadership must hold. This is crackpot stuff. In principle, the university’s gay rights group would not be able to require its president to affirm gay rights. More:

Gunter said the Christian Legal Society wants its officers to uphold the group’s core beliefs. Otherwise, he and others said, being a group is pointless.

“We welcome everybody to be a member,” Gunter said. But “we only have 20, 25 members. All it would take is 26 people (with different beliefs) to join and undermine our purpose.”

Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, which has offices on Vanderbilt’s campus and in Washington, D.C., said he agrees with the legal society’s position. Haynes said competing principles are at play — barring discrimination versus supporting the freedoms of religion and association — and that a fair compromise would require religious groups to open their meetings to everyone while permitting restrictions on who can serve in leadership positions.

“They want to maintain their Christian identity by having leaders who make a faith commitment,” said Haynes, who also directs the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum. “It would be absurd to say a Jewish group can be led by a Christian.”


As Colleen Carroll Campbell points out, “By the logic of Vanderbilt administrators, the Muslim Student Association must allow ultra-orthodox Jews to run its meetings.” Along these lines, the invaluable activist group FIRE, which is standing up to Vanderbilt’s administration on behalf of the students, explains why this sort of policy is so dangerous to everyone’s freedom of association:

 And it could be much worse, particularly when it comes to minority religious or ideological groups on campus. Forcing them to allow any student to become a leader regardless of belief can imperil their very existence. For instance, imagine that a ten-person College Socialists group exists on campus. One day, a group of twenty College Republicans shows up for the meeting, votes itself into the leadership by virtue of its superior numbers, and effectively disbands the group. This scenario is quite possible if groups cannot use belief-based standards to choose their leaders. At places like Central Michigan University, in fact,we’ve seen this tactic in action.

It should be pointed out that what Vanderbilt is doing is legal. The school is a private entity. And if it were a public university, this kind of illiberal tactic would still be legal — so said the US Supreme Court in a 5-4 ruling last year.

You would think that all student groups would resent Vanderbilt’s unwarranted intrusion into their affairs. This attack on the Christian groups is an attack on the freedom of association of all of them. But it’s okay when it’s Christian “bigots” being suppressed, is that it? If your support for freedom of association only extends to groups of which you approve, you don’t really support it at all. It is a mystery to me why it’s the business of Vanderbilt University to tell its diverse student groups what their leadership may or may not believe.

The gay rights movement is a serious threat to religious liberty, and in ways that are not always easy to perceive. Yes, the Christian Legal Society may still meet, even though they do not have Vanderbilt’s sanction or funding. In point of fact, I support the right of this private institution to discriminate in this fashion, as ugly as it is. (What I don’t get is why churches in Nashville don’t get down there and demonstrate; you know perfectly well that if gay rights were being threatened like this, gay activist groups wouldn’t sit quiet and take it). Even though the group may meet privately, the message this overall policy sends is that to believe in traditional Christian (or Orthodox Jewish, or Muslim) teachings on homosexuality is to put oneself outside the public square. How many students will be afraid to affiliate with unapproved groups, for fear that it will harm their career advancement? Is it really the case that you want membership in the CLS, or any other unapproved group, on your CV when you are applying for a job?

As Maggie Gallagher wrote several years back:

People who favor gay rights face no penalty for speaking their views, but can inflict a risk of litigation, investigation, and formal and informal career penalties on others whose views they dislike. Meanwhile, people who think gay marriage is wrong cannot know for sure where the line is now or where it will be redrawn in the near future. “Soft” coercion produces no martyrs to disturb anyone’s conscience, yet it is highly effective in chilling the speech of ordinary people.

For Vanderbilt, for many gay rights activists, and indeed for American elites, egalitarianism is more important than liberty, as long as the people whose liberty is being suppressed are religious believers.

UPDATE: This has been going on for some time. From a TMatt column from 10 years ago:

“We did what they asked us to do. We went to their tolerance classes,” said Fung. “You think the institutions that teach tolerance won’t turn around and bite you. But they do. We thought the people who taught all those classes would be tolerant. … No way. They were determined to cure us of our intolerance.”

And, Scott Lahti from the comboxes, quoting Wendell Berry:

Tolerance and Multiculturalism. Quit talking bad about women, homosexuals, and preferred social minorities, and you can say anything you want about people who haven’t been to college, manual workers, country people, peasants, religious people, unmodern people, old people, and so on.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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