Congressmen to Vanderbilt: Don't Discriminate Against Student Religious Groups

October 24, 2011 - 10:45 AM

Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.), chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus

Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) (Photo courtesy of the Congressional Prayer Caucus)

(CNSNews.com) – Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus say they are concerned that several religious student groups at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., face possible dissolution unless they allow students who do not share the group’s core religious beliefs to hold leadership positions.

Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) and 22 other congressmen have sent a letter to Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos, asking the university to remove restrictions it has placed on the Vanderbilt chapter of the Christian Legal Society and Fellowship of Christian Athletes and other religious student groups.

Forbes says the groups were placed on “provisionary status” after the university told them they could not require those in their leadership positions to hold the religious beliefs of the group.

“As members of Congress dedicated to protecting religious freedom in America, we are troubled to learn that student groups are being prohibited from preserving their religious identity through their student leadership,” Forbes, the leader of the prayer caucus, wrote.

“Religious student groups form around specific beliefs and provide an opportunity for like-minded individuals to assemble to study the tenets of their faith – and to engage in activities that enrich their religious experiences.”

“We request that you allow these groups to freely choose student leaders that best represent their core beliefs,” the congressmen's letter said, adding: “Selecting leaders that best represent a student organization’s mission is not discrimination; it is common sense.”

The university did not talk to CNSNews.com about the incident, but has released a statement which acknowledges the congressmen’s letter.

“We have received a letter from the Congressional Prayer Caucus and are continuing to explore the issues raised in the letter,” Vanderbilt said.

According to the university, the student organizations “have the same full access to the Vanderbilt campus as they have had in the past while the university continues to listen to and discuss their concerns.”

The situation began when a student complained to university officials in November 2010 that he had been discriminated against by the Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi, which he claimed had pressured him to leave, following suspicion that he was homosexual.

The incident prompted a review of the 380 student organizations registered at Vanderbilt for compliance with the University’s nondiscrimination policy.

“Of the 36 religious student groups registered, 32 are in compliance. All other student groups are in compliance with the policy,” the university said in its statement.

Vanderbilt’s chapter of the Christian Legal Society is one of the groups found to be noncompliant.

The group’s constitution requires its leaders to subscribe to the CLS Statement of Faith, and to “lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at Chapter Meetings”

Vanderbilt told the organization in an e-mail on August 9: “Thank you for submitting your new Constitution for the Christian Legal Society. In reviewing it, there are some parts of it that are in violation of Vanderbilt University’s policies regarding student organizations; they will need to be addressed before the Office of Religious Life can endorse CLS’s approval.

“Article III states that, ‘All officers of this Chapter must subscribe to the Christian Legal Society Statement of Faith.’ Vanderbilt’s policies do not allow any student organization to preclude someone from a leadership position based on religious belief. Only performance-based criteria may be used. This section will need to be rewritten reflecting this policy.

The case garnered national attention when Carol Swain, professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt, released an op-ed calling it a “dangerous flirtation with religious suppression.”

“At the time I just thought it was a flirtation,” Swain told CNSNews.com.  “It was only later that we discovered that the University had changed its policy by removing language that protected religious organizations.”

Swain said that she wrote the article after she suspected that the University was deliberately singling out religious organizations.

“We were trying to work behind the scenes to see who knew about it and if there was a misunderstanding,” Swain said.

“A lot of conversations took place, and in those conversations we were told that the policy change had been approved at the highest level of administration, and that Vanderbilt had set aside $2 million dollars to fight any lawsuits that might ensue.”

Swain said she is skeptical that the letter will be sufficient to change the situation.

“Right now, the groups affected have provisional status through the end of this year.  If this is not resolved by the end of the year, those chapters will be forced off campus.  There may be some legal recourse.”

Vanderbilt officials referred CNSNews.com to its Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Policy, which states:

“Vanderbilt University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, or genetic information in its administration of educational policies, programs, or activities; admissions policies; scholarship and loan programs; athletic or other University-administered programs; or employment.

“In addition, the University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation ii , gender identity iii , or gender expression iv consistent with the University’s nondiscrimination policy.”

“ii Sexual orientation refers to a person’s self-identification as heterosexual, homosexual, bisexual, asexual, pansexual, or uncertain.

“iii Gender identity is generally defined as a person's own sense of identification as male, female, both, or neither as distinguished from actual biological sex, i.e. it is one’s psychological sense of self.

“iv Gender expression is everything we do that communicates our sense of identification to others.”