Bad Vanderbilt Policy Will Not Be Reversed by Worse Legislation

Tenn. Gov. Bill Haslam

For those of you who’ve been in an internet dead zone, a “Vanderbilt” search doesn’t turn up what it did a few months ago. A message from Vanderbilt’s Chancellor on January 20 explains the policy that caused the controversy that will dominate your search results:

We…require all Vanderbilt registered student organizations to observe our nondiscrimination policy. That means membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions.

The decision to require all student organizations – even religious ones – to be open to everyone, and to require that everyone have opportunity to seek leadership positions in those organizations was based on Vanderbilt’s equal opportunity and affirmative action policy

that, in part, reads:

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 . . . programs, or activities . . . or other University-administered programs; or employment. In addition, the University does not discriminate against individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression consistent with the University’s nondiscrimination policy.

InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has offered a statement in opposition to the Vanderbilt policy:

InterVarsity is disappointed that Vanderbilt’s administration has not been responsive to the concerns expressed by its students. We remain hopeful that a position change is still possible that will allow InterVarsity’s Graduate Christian Fellowship and other Christian organizations to require their leaders to be practicing Christians. Any organization must have leadership that believes in its goals and purposes in order to remain active and relevant. We believe authentic expressions of Christian faith should be a part of the forum of ideas on the campus of Vanderbilt or any other university.

Meanwhile Reformed University Fellowship, a ministry of the Presbyterian Church in America, doesn’t expect to be affected by the Vanderbilt policy:

Because each RUF is led by an ordained minister under the authority and supervision of the Presbyterian Church in America, RUF has not been impaired by the policy allowing “all members in good standing to seek leadership posts.” Each campus minister has completed a stringent ordination process and is responsible to preserve the integrity and purity of RUF in developing leadership. This structure acts as a safeguard as opposed to a statement of faith for leaders required by other ministries.

The Vanderbilt policy affected both evangelical and Catholic groups. As for the reaction of the loudest evangelicals, it was too predictable. See, at some point the politico-evangelicals decided to simply mimic the strategies of other special interest groups. Those strategies include screaming about and rhetorically bloating apparent religious slights. Another tactic(s) includes the pursuit of each and every means – whether state or federal, legislative or judicial – to increase the rights for “our” side. One of the appeals of Santorum to evangelicals was his obliviousness to any constitutional principles or political philsophy that might impede granting their wish list.

In Tennessee that kind of approach resulted in legislation intended to temporarily reverse Vanderbilt’s policies. Applying to any state higher education institution (Vanderbilt is private), the proposed legislation is described in the Bill Summary as follows:

A religious student organization will be authorized to determine that the organization’s religious mission requires that only persons professing the faith of the group and comporting themselves in conformity with it qualify to serve as members or leaders.

Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, who is reportedly an elder in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church has expressed his intent to veto the legislation. Here he explains why:

“It is counter-intuitive to make campus organizations open their membership and leadership positions to anyone and everyone, even when potential members philosophically disagree with the core values and beliefs of the organization,” Haslam said in a prepared statement.

“Although I disagree with Vanderbilt’s policy, as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution.”

So let me get this straight, Governor Haslam: you personally think the Vanderbilt policy is a bad one but you won’t sign legislation correcting it on the abstract principle that the government should not mandate behavior of a private institution? Good for you, and good for Tennessee. If Vanderbilt wants to exhibit intolerance to religion and draw a bunch of think-alikes to its classrooms, all the worse for Vanderbilt. But, tell you what, leave them alone if they want to do that in their private institution and do likewise for private institutions who welcome religious convictions. The veto will be a short-term loss for some students at Vanderbilt but it will be a long term gain by promoting principles that provide more enduring liberty than are provided by shifting political winds.

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1 Comment

Filed under Culture Wars, evangelical politics, Religious rights

One response to “Bad Vanderbilt Policy Will Not Be Reversed by Worse Legislation

  1. Keith

    Well said: we have been plagued in the UK over the years with reactive, badly thought out, rushed legislation (in reaction to terrorism ‘threat’ and ‘equal opportunities’) with many unintended consequences.

    It’s fascinating to hear so many automatically say; “the Government must act to stop/change/start etc. etc. ” When what they actually mean is; “I don’t want to take responsibility”

    Bad legislation is bad and will more often than not lead to worse consequences even if the intention is supposed to be ‘good’.

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