I have just stumbled across this story, which has clearly been going on for quite a while. Murray (who, it turns out, is headmaster of the school the church I grew up in started a decade or so ago; I do not know him) has written a nice little piece providing a broader historical context. From a quick reading I probably agree with the governor in terms of non-interference with private organizations but strongly disagree with Vanderbilt’s decision.
I assume Vandy is allowing the College Republicans to only select those student leaders who adhere to the basic positions of their party or the LGBTA organization to insist that those in leadership are supportive of an LGBT agenda. Why not the same for Muslim, Jewish and Christian groups?
Last week, Tennessee legislators sent a message to Vanderbilt University: Religious liberty matters. Large majorities in both houses passed a bill to prohibit the school from interfering in the ability of student groups to select their own leaders and members, define their own doctrines and resolve their own disputes—or Vanderbilt risks losing $24 million in state funding.
The legislation follows Vanderbilts decision to stop recognizing campus religious organizations that require their leaders to accept certain religious beliefs on which they are founded. The Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Vanderbilt Catholic, Navigators and other groups—ministering to about 1,500 students—would effectively be moved off campus in the name of “nondiscrimination.”
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has stated that although he opposes Vanderbilts policy, he plans to veto the bill because it is “inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution.” Thirty-six members of Congress have urged the university to reconsider, stating that its exemption of fraternities and sororities but not religious groups “suggests hostility on the part of Vanderbilt toward religious student groups.”
Ironically, the very freedom Vanderbilt administrators have to make their unfortunate decision derives from a 19th-century Supreme Court case that led to the proliferation of Christian colleges such as Vanderbilt, founded under the auspices of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1873.
On Feb. 2, 1819, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Dartmouth. Concluding that the Constitutions contract clause protected private corporate charters, the court paved the way for the founding of myriad private colleges during the 19th century—a large majority of which were affiliated with Christian denominations.
Scores of graduates became leaders in the abolitionist movement, champions of minorities and womens right to education, world missionaries as well as business leaders and influential government officials.Yet today, Vanderbilt officials are restricting the liberty of the very sorts of religious folks who not only founded the school but whose followers led many of the nondiscrimination battles of 19th-century higher education.
Does Vanderbilt really want to miss out on future student leaders who will no doubt choose other schools where they can join organizations that support rather than undermine their faith? As an educator and Vanderbilt alumnus, I will no longer be able to recommend the university to Christian families in good conscience.
I pray that Vanderbilt will reverse course and act in the spirit of Webster—setting a precedent for other universities defending religious liberty for the 21st century.