How far should commitment to nondiscrimination go?

Vanderbilt University has stripped a Christian student group of official recognition because it had a clause that says “Criteria for officer selection will include level and quality of past involvement, personal commitment to Jesus Christ, commitment to the organization, and demonstrated leadership ability.” It was the phrase “personal commitment to Jesus Christ’ that resulted in the plug being pulled.

I can understand campus student groups not being allowed to discriminate on the basis of race or gender or ethnicity or disability or sexual orientation. Those are effectively unchangeable qualities of the person not views that they hold. But shouldn’t groups be allowed to limit their leaders, and even their members, to just those who will uphold their mission statements?

After all, doesn’t requiring “demonstrated leadership ability” also discriminate against those who do not aspire to be, or are not, good leaders?

I don’t quite see a slippery slope here in allowing religious groups to limit their leaders and members to those who share their religion.

Am I missing something?


  1. jamessweet says

    Need more details than I was able to find in that link. At face value, this indeed seems like an overreach. On the other hand, if the group was using it as code-speak for “must not be gay”, etc., then that’s a problem. The Turley link doesn’t go in depth, and the links he provides I do not find to be credible sources.

    So I’d have to hear more details, specifically the university’s case.

  2. jamessweet says

    Okay, I found Vanderbilt’s statement on the matter:

    “We respect our students’ rights to hold and practice their religious beliefs. Our nondiscrimination policy does nothing to restrict those rights, nor does it limit these religious organizations’ ability to choose their own leaders. We require only that the groups be open to all Vanderbilt students and all members in good standing must be allowed to offer themselves for leadership. The groups themselves select their leaders. The policy allows leadership requirements such as length of membership, attendance, level of active participation and certain performance-based criteria, such as GPA for honor societies. Any groups whose leadership requirements don’t comply with our nondiscrimination policy are given the opportunity to revise and resubmit their application.”

    There’s a couple of important details… this was not an existing club that was axed, this was a club that was applying for recognition. As part of their application process, the university asked that those words be removed. They refused, so their constitution was not approved.

    I’m still not entirely comfortable with it, but it’s not the attack on religion that the usual suspects are making it out to be (this story is only being covered at places like Fox News, Daily Mail, WND, etc., with predictable one-sidedness). I think Vanderbilt probably is going overboard here and over-interpreting their non-discrimination policy, but it’s also not quite what some are making it out to be.

  3. unbound says

    The cynic in means is fighting hard to support. On one hand, a xtian group should be able to specify something that speaks to the commitment of the mission of the group as long as it doesn’t run afoul of race, gender, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation. On the other hand, doesn’t discrimination based on race, gender, ethnicity, disability or sexual orientation define many xtian groups?


    They should be able to specify that the leader of their group is there to support their group. I really don’t see it as being any different than the requirement of any other group (e.g. you have to be a parent of a band student to be an officer at my local band boosters association).

    I’m wondering if that is the distinction though. If they had specified “member of a Christian church” rather than a “personal commitment to Jesus Christ”, they may not have had any issue. Being a member or parent is something that is easily verifiable. Having the ambiguity of the current language may be the only real issue.

  4. Libby Mendez says

    I’m a college student, and college faced a controversy last year in which a lesbian student was told by a Christian group that if she wanted to continue to lead scripture studies, she could not be out or date women. This group, run by Intervarsity Christian Fellowship, was not approved for reappointment the following year.

    The tricky thing is that this group is applying for recognition again this year, still through Intervarsity. They don’t have any discrimination in their constitution explicitly about sexual orientation, but they reserve the right to elect leaders based on “Biblical standards.” This, in my cynical opinion, is their way keeping this discriminatory policy, by claiming that gay doesn’t meet “Biblical Standards.”

    So, I’m inclined to believe that there is more to the story here than just keeping Christians from leading Christian groups.

  5. iknklast says

    I guess I don’t see this as so out of line; it’s standard. When we started a freethinkers club at my school, we had to include similar language, leading to the possibility of a takeover by a bunch of Christians. They could run, join in large enough numbers to turn the election, and then we’d be just another Christian group. It’s the risk we all run for being inclusive.

    The Supreme Court not too long ago upheld a similar requirement by a school that a Christian club didn’t have to be recognized if it was unwilling to include non-discrimination in its guidelines.

    The big reason, of course, is that student activity fees go to all these groups, and it justifies requiring students to support the activities they don’t agree with. Frankly, I think religious clubs should be left out of the public schools altogether, but that’s something that’s not going to happen.

  6. eNeMeE says

    The big reason, of course, is that student activity fees go to all these groups

    That’s the biggest issue, IMO, and probably why all students have to be able to join – anything that prohibits a portion of students from joining is effectively cheating that portion out of their money.

  7. otrame says

    The point here is that these “approved” groups get money from the university, money that comes from student fees that all students have to pay. Therefore, the university requires that any such group allow any student be a member and/or leader.

    There is absolutely nothing stopping them from having their group. It is just the use of student fees to support groups who will not allow all students to join that causes the problem.

    Needless to say, for a long time Christian and and sometimes other religious groups were given approved status even though they explicitly barred some students from joining. As times changed, the policies of many universities changed to reflect the fact that not all students paying fees are Christian, or straight, or what ever, and should not be expected to support a group (with money paid in fees, especially since these fees are not optional) that does not welcome them.

  8. thewhollynone says

    Can those with a “personal commitment to Jesus” form a club, but not receive any money from student activity funds, and restrict membership and officers? Would they be allowed to meet on campus? When I went to a public university in the 1950’s, the churches and their student clubs were just off campus, on church property. Vanderbilt, however, is a private university, isn’t it?

  9. Mano Singham says

    I recently spoke with a chaplain at a public university and he said that all the chaplaincies were private and had their offices off-campus (although they had university email addresses and were given access to students) because of church-state separation. I do not know the status of religious student organizations though.

    Yes, Vanderbilt is private, like my own university and hence can make its own rules.

    In general, if you are not an official university body, you cannot get permission to use facilities though of course anyone can use vacant rooms and lounges without permission. But having official standing helps a lot, not only because you can get money.

  10. itzac says

    Anyone can form a club and meet wherever they like. These requirements only come into play if they want access university money or resources.

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