Vanderbilt University Christians: Why Can’t We Discriminate?

Registered college organizations have to adhere to a few rules, one of which is that they must not be discriminatory. You can’t reject homosexuals or black people or Republicans or atheists from your organization because you don’t agree with their views.

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee audited the constitutions of around 300 campus groups and found that 12 of them were violating that rule. Five of those were religious groups. Four of those were Christian groups. (Surprise…)

“Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings.” [Christian Legal Society] President Justin Gunter told me, “We come together to do things that Christians do together. Pray, and have Bible studies.”

To that, Rev. Gretchen Person — interim director of the Office of Religious Life at Vanderbilt — responded “Vanderbilt policies do not allow this expectation/qualification for officers.” Gunter has been negotiating with the university and has taken some language out of the CLS constitution — including the requirement that Student Coordinators “should strive to exemplify Christ-like qualities.” But he says he has to draw the line at the requirement regarding Bible studies, prayer and worship.

He told me, “At the point where they’re saying we can’t have Bible studies and prayer meetings as part of our constitution -– if we go beyond that -– we’re compromising the very identity of who we are as Christians and the very thing we believe as religious individuals.”

You can kind of understand where he’s coming from, but why would anyone want to belong to a group like that unless they wanted to do those things anyway? Surely, the Christian group can get by without excluding other people, assuming that only Christians would want to be involved with their group.

But that’s where the conspiracy theories begin:

You might be asking yourself, even if they allowed a person who didn’t share their beliefs to run for a leadership position, how would he or she ever get elected? That’s an argument the Catholic student group at Vanderbilt agreed with. Vandy Catholic changed its constitution to read that potential board members need only be “undergraduate students at Vanderbilt University.”

CLS says it could never agree to that. The Vanderbilt group –- and the national CLS organization are worried about “infiltration”, arguing that a person hostile to the group could rise to a leadership position, then attempt to tear it apart through conflict.

So they honestly believe if they make their constitution non-discriminatory, enough atheists would join that we could overtake their membership, elect our own people into leadership positions, and… and then what? It’s not like Christianity’s going to come to an end if the CLS is taken over.

For what it’s worth, atheist groups shouldn’t limit membership to only atheists, either. In fact, most of the groups I know welcome people who believe in god — conversations and debates are waaaaaay more interesting when they include someone who might actually disagree with the group.

It’s just amazing to see Christian groups — and only Christian groups — defending a policy of discrimination because they’re so afraid someone’s going to try and stop them from meeting and worshiping as they please.

I’m pretty sure the atheists wouldn’t do that, in any case. As long as our groups are able to hold their own meetings and co-exist with the other groups on campus, I doubt you’ll see any of us wasting energy on taking away someone else’s right to meet and practice their faith in peace. That would go against what so many of us believe.

If you attend the school, by the way, check out the Vanderbilt University Secular Student Alliance!

(Thanks to Kevin for the link!)

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Thin-ice

    Political correctness run amok! What’s wrong with special interest groups limiting their membership to people with that special interest? Otherwise why meet? I’m with the religious kids on this one . . .

    • Anonymous

      Agreed.

    • http://www.facebook.com/ryurack Rebel Yurack

      The problem is that registered college organizations receive money from student government for operating fees, which are paid by all students in their tuition. Students should not be required to support any organization that doesn’t allow them full membership opportunities IN ANY WAY. 

      The only possible problem that I see with this is that Vandy is a “private” university so they may have some sort of legal backing for their argument. But that doesn’t make it right.

      • Miko

        Thin-ice and Rebel are both right: groups should be allowed to limit their membership if appropriate to their goals, and others shouldn’t be forced to finance them.  The obvious solution is to eliminate university funding of student groups: let the students that want to be in the group finance it directly and the problem goes away entirely.

        As is often the case, the problem only arises because someone made the foolish decision to have public funding for private groups.  As long as you insist on funding the groups communally, there is no good solution to this problem.

        • Bruce_wright

           The idea is that these student groups are using campus buildings for meeting places, signage, etc.  So it’s not just money.

          And the idea is that these campus clubs contribute to a richer on campus experience.   What better time in life to sample a diversity of opinions than on campus?

      • Erp

        Some student groups are allowed to restrict membership by certain criteria.  For instance an a capella group can restrict membership to the best singers for the positions available (e.g., if the group calls for 2 altos, 2 tenors, 2 basses, and 2 sopranos plus alternates).   An honor society can require a certain GPA.    Religious belief, race, ethnicity, and sex (admittedly female basses and college age male sopranos are fairly rare) are not legitimate criteria in most universities’ views.

        There are perhaps legitimate fears of ‘steeplejacking’ for some groups.  Steeplejacking refers to a group packing another church with new members, having the new members vote out the old officers and taking the church’s assets and using it for another purpose.      However most student groups don’t have the assets to be of interest and there are other means of preventing this at least for student groups.

      • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

        This sort of very basic “‘members of a group should actually agree with the group’s aims” sort of requirement is perfectly sensible. There shouldn’t be a concern about the funding being discriminatory unless the institution was only prepared to fund groups with particular views. So long as they’re prepared to fund everyone the same way they fund the Christians, they’re not being unfairly discriminatory.

      • http://www.facebook.com/ryurack Rebel Yurack

        I think a lot of the replies here missed the phrase “full membership OPPORTUNITIES” in my comment. The issue that the CLS presents is that they refuse to allow the OPPORTUNITY to be a leader to anyone. On the topic of Erp’s comment, a singing group can restrict the kind of members it has, but it cannot keep people from trying out for the membership. Anyone can try to get a higher GPA to qualify for an honor group. Additionally, not everyone who wants to be part of the Greek system gets in, and there’s very little rhyme or reason to their choices–but anyone can rush any frat/sor that they want.

        Publicly funded and affiliated organizations should not be allowed to discriminate based upon religion (or lack), age, gender(including trans), disability, race, or sexual orientation. In a college setting, “publicly funded”would include any organization that is eligible to apply for student government funding. (Full disclosure, I believe few college students care what groups utilize the facilities as long as they are not impeding the activities of their own groups or causing damage, so I think the use of buildings is a weak argument).

        To address a point that should come up from this:
        The argument that frats take only men and sors take only women is valid, though not necessarily true. I belong(ed) to a co-ed honor frat, and we had a co-ed sister sor. That said, the traditions of frats and sors run deep, and though they are hard to defeat they often need to be challenged. And isn’t challenging the status quo a big part of what the Atheist movement is about?

  • http://disrespectfultone.blogspot.com/ Daniel Schealler

    I don’t know about university atheists groups in particular – I was never a member of one even when I was in uni oh so very long ago.

    But if it was me?

    And I was in an atheists group?

    I would grin maniacally and rub my hands with glee at the thought of religious people joining so they could preach to my group. Fresh meat!

    • Bob Becker

      Unless of course, if your group was small, enough of them joined to create a majority of believers in the Atheist Campus Alliance.  

      If you have the freedom of association, that necessarily implies that you are free to form a group of people who share certain things [interests, beliefs, goals] etc. with you and to limit membership to those sharing those interests, beliefs, goals with you. .  

      • Anonymous

        Hmm. Like having a chess club that also happens to believe that only white people can play decent chess and excludes brown people. Or maybe a science geeks club that excludes women because we all know that only men can really be true geeks who share the same interests, beliefs, and goals. Or a charitable group that excludes atheists because charity can only come from faith–the godless are evil and must have ulterior motives.

        • Bob Becker

          I think the distinction between characteristics that are entirely inherent (race; gender, etc.) and those that are matters of choice is not a trivial one. I can see with some justice public universities banning organizations that discriminate on the basis of that first category [ethnicity, race, gender, etc.] but not banning groups that discriminate on the basis of the second category [political views, religion, etc.]

          But there’s no clear dividing line that will apply in all cases all the time, I’m afraid. [E.g. what if a group of students holds to religious beliefs that racial segregation is the will of god, and so forms a necessarily all white religious student organization?] Off public campuses, there is no limit on how private groups may discriminate. If you wanted to start a group limited to straight white male left handed people, you’re free to do so as a matter of right. And should be.

          Campus groups are a little iffier since (a) they are often funded by student fees to some extent (b) and recognition by a public university can be taken to mean university endorsement of whatever the group advocates or practices, at least to some extent. [This was a common argument against public high schools permitting Gay-Straight Alliance clubs, that permitting them would involve the school in endorsing a "gay agenda" or "gay lifestyle" etc. ] The argument has no merit, but it is true [read letters columns for examples] that many in the general public do not , however wrongly, distinguish between university recognition of a student group an university
          endorsement of that group. This is not something universities supported by public funds can ignore entirely.

          But in the end, even on a public campus, if free association is pitted against the university’s attempt to discourage discrimination in freely associating student groups , even on the basis of race or gender, I think I’d have to come down on the side of free association. So, yes, if a group of student air heads wanted to form a Testosterone Science Club and post a “Boys Only” sign on the door, yes, they should be able to do it. And if the university supported a broad range of student groups with university funds, they should have similar access to those funds. Otherwise inevitably the university would become involved in punishing some groups because of the
          content of their belief…. and any government agency, even a university, doing that makes me nervous.

          The usual question that immediately arises when I make that argument is this: “But suppose a group of racists on campus wanted to organize as a student group a White Students Alliance? Should they be able to?” The answer is yes. [BTW there have been Black Student clubs and alliances organized on campuses and recognized as student groups, though most of the examples I'm familiar with are on private not public campuses.] In the end, blithering idiots have a right to organize groups limiting membership to other blithering idiots, and I’m not sure that we can protect the right of the rest of us, on or off campus, to create and join associations we find
          amenable to our ideas if we can’t protect their right to do the same.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    The idea isn’t completely crazy. When I was an undergrad at Yale there was some discussion by members of some political groups (all over the political spectrum) of trying to pull that sort of stunt. I don’t think anyone every did it though. 

    Regarding not being surprised- actually, I’m surprised that only 4/12 were Christian groups. I would have guessed a majority of the groups in question would have been Christian. 

  • http://www.frommormontoatheist.blogspot.com Leia

    Seriously, they could get some good use out of an atheist lead bible study… ;)

  • Freak

    Is it only Christian groups that were defending a discriminatory policy?  There were 7 nonreligious groups.

    Can anybody find out what those 12 groups are, and whether they have / have not changed their constitutions since the issue arose?

  • Anonymous

    In this case, such a rule makes sense and may be justified. But it’s hard to set this in stone. What about some political club that suddenly decides to restrict membership to a certain party? That wouldn’t be ok. So the same rules across the board aren’t necessarily practical. It’s a case by case thing.

    • Bob Becker

      But surely Campus Republicans or Campus Democrats should be free to limit membership to those of their respective parties. 

      • Erp

        I suspect that is allowed as long as anyone is free to register as a Republican or Democrat (which I think is true as long as one is a US Citizen and over 18).    Note neither political party can say to person X, you cannot register as a member of our party even if all their political views are against the party’s platform.  On the other hand it means those who are underage (and some college students are under 18) can’t join so the clubs might as well not have registered member of the party as a criteria (especially since it might be hard to check if the person is registered in their home state and that is not the same as the state they are attending college).

        The  Stanford University rules can be found at http://studentaffairs.stanford.edu/sal/involved/draft-constitution

        The Secular Student Alliance btw prohibits member groups from discriminating by religion.

  • http://twitter.com/oihorse Chris Gohlinghorst

    Jesus would surely agree with their exclusionary tactics. Oh wait…

  • Matto the Hun

    Well when you believe in dumb-ass crap like the Anti-Christ you can see where they might get a bit antsy. After all, the A-C is supposed to be all likeable and charming, talking about peace, eventually becoming a world leader. Same thing but on a bigger scale. 

    Who’s to say the old A-C wouldn’t do a dry run at some college Christian group before bringing out his a-game on the world stage.Think about it. ;)

    • http://www.facebook.com/keithacollyer Keith Collyer

      and people wonder why so many religions leaders turn out to be nasty people. The hint is there

    • http://www.facebook.com/melaniedawn.molinawood Melanie Dawn Molina Wood

      ROFL… great point ;-)

  • Matto the Hun

    Well when you believe in dumb-ass crap like the Anti-Christ you can see where they might get a bit antsy. After all, the A-C is supposed to be all likeable and charming, talking about peace, eventually becoming a world leader. Same thing but on a bigger scale. 

    Who’s to say the old A-C wouldn’t do a dry run at some college Christian group before bringing out his a-game on the world stage.Think about it. ;)

  • MsLeading

    Now look, I’m a rabid atheist just like the rest of us.  But I don’t see any problem with that CLS requirement.  It does not in any way discriminate against someone for who they ARE; it lists requirements for what members must DO.  According to that excerpt of their constitution, you can be an atheist and be an officer in their club, as long as you’re willing to lead Bible study and prayer (I, for one, would LOVE the opportunity to lead a Bible study…).  This is not discrimination, because every student has free choice whether to act in the ways that the group’s membership requires.  It’s different than a group demanding that you have certain involuntary qualifications, like race or gender or even something like religious or political affiliation.  Would you want a secular student group being prohibited from requiring that its officers organize secular functions, just so they don’t discriminate against religious people?  That seems utterly ridiculous to me.

  • JimG

    Rebel’s right. Vandy’s not saying “these groups can’t exist,” but rather “we won’t officially sanction and fund these groups if you violate our policy.” Vandy’s policies were probably in place when these groups’ rules were written.

    As a private college, Vandy does have substantial leeway in what groups it chooses to endorse, so kudos to them for having such a sensible attitude about it.

    • Miko

      One problem with this is that students who join non-officially sanctioned groups are still forced to fund the officially-sanctioned groups.  In effect, the university takes their money and requires them to become officially-sanctioned in order to get their own money back, but then claims the right to dictate how their group can operate because the university is letting the members use their own money.

      • JimG

        That I would consider to be part of the price of going to Vanderbilt University. When you enroll, you’re getting all of the school’s policies as a package; if you don’t like Vandy’s rules, you can go to Bob Jones University or wherever else will admit you. If I seriously objected to what a school openly stood for, I wouldn’t go there; and Vandy is a pricey school in a city with lots of options, so it’s not as though peoples’ choices are limited.

      • Bruce_wright

        It’s not “your money”.  It’s money you’ve freely chosen to spend at the university as part of your education.  The money is spent on fees.

        You might as well say that you are forced to give money to the student bookstore to get books, then if you want your own money back you are forced to work a cash register!  FORCED INTO SLAVERY WITH MY OWN MONEY!!!!  Oh the SHAME!  What would Ayn Rand say!??

  • http://www.facebook.com/seth.strong Seth Strong

    I’m heading over to Vanderbilt right now to insurrect.  Vote for me.

    (not serious)

  • Cynthia Armistead

    Private schools that accept students who use federal student loans and other government-backed financial aid have to abide by the same non-discrimination laws as public universities. 

    As I recall, there are a very few (and very small) exceptions, and they blow their own horns loudly on that topic, such as Hillsdale College in Michigan.

  • Anonymous

    Reminds me of how the BNP here in Britain have to accept people of all ethnic backgrounds. A good thing.

    On the flipside, and why someone might join a group they dont fit the label of: I’m a member of the Gay Police Association as, although I’m not gay, I do believe in strength of numbers and supporting the cause.

    Why an atheist would join a religious group for anything other than ulterior motives is beyond me.

  • Anonymous

    Back when I was in uni, I had a friend* who wasn’t religious (though avidly interested in Norse mythology) and had no Jewish ancestry or cultural ties, who joined the Jewish students’ group. I have no idea what they thought of him.

    *He was later a roommate who, after we moved in together, converted to Christianity and started leaving bible crap and tracts around the apartment in an attempt to annoy or intimidate me–this, despite the fact that I had just completed an MA in medieval studies (i.e. immersed in Christian theology, philosophy, liturgy, canon law etc.). Okay, so it did annoy me. Anyway, in short he turned out to be a total, utter asshole of the highest order.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      On a lot of college campuses people who aren’t Jewish join some of the Jewish groups. This is often simply because the Friday night dinner food is a lot better than a lot of the other food on campus. When I was an undergraduate at Yale there were a large number of both non-Jews and totally irreligious Jews who went to Friday night dinner for this reason. My impression is that this number is smaller now there for a variety of reasons, but I’ve seen similar things occur at other college campuses.

    • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

      On a lot of college campuses people who aren’t Jewish join some of the Jewish groups. This is often simply because the Friday night dinner food is a lot better than a lot of the other food on campus. When I was an undergraduate at Yale there were a large number of both non-Jews and totally irreligious Jews who went to Friday night dinner for this reason. My impression is that this number is smaller now there for a variety of reasons, but I’ve seen similar things occur at other college campuses.

      • Anonymous

        That hypothesis might have been more plausible in his case (he did like food), but for the fact that he lived at home and had his meals cooked by his mother.  Still, it’s a possibility I guess.

    • http://www.facebook.com/melaniedawn.molinawood Melanie Dawn Molina Wood

      Given his behavior towards you later, I would wonder if he joined the Jewish students’ group to be disruptive there too

  • David B.

    [including the requirement that Student Coordinators “should strive to exemplify Christ-like qualities.”]

    Okay, I get that Vanderbilt doesn’t want discrimination written into the organizations’ constitutions, but this isn’t even discriminatory. Anyone can exemplify ‘Christ-like’ qualities without necessarily being Christian, or even religious. Hell, I’m an atheist but I regularly get mad at money-lenders (more so since the crash), shout abuse at fig trees, and associate with prostitutes.

    I think this, more than anything, is indicative that VU has gone a bit overboard.

  • Craig Hart

    I can understand the funding argument. However, I have a problem with this so-called non-discriminatory business. After all, what’s the point of having a niche club if you can’t limit membership? Suppose I start a chess club and some skateboarder joins and wants us all to skateboard instead of play chess? Just go start your own skateboard club! Personally, I have no problem being kept out of various clubs if I don’t measure up to their standards. I’ll simply find one that I agree with or, again, start my own.

  • TychaBrahe

    I don’t know.  If there was a breastfeeding club on campus and one of their requirements was that in order to be a breastfeeding coach to new mothers you had to be a woman who had or was breastfeeding a child, would you rule that as discriminatory?  I understand that an atheist can lead a Bible study, but how can she lead a Christian prayer?

  • Anonymous

    There seem to be a lot of strawmen hypotheticals in the comments. I don’t have the Vanderbilt rules in front of me, but I imagine that they are like most human rights regulation and legislation. There are certain named groups who are protected from discrimination. In other words you can’t have a club that turns away students based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion (for example). If a Jewish person wants to join the Hindu students’ group or a straight guy wants to join the LGBTQ group, well they’re free to do so. If someone joins a club just to harass the other participants and starts causing trouble, that’s the time they can be kicked out.

    • Bob Becker

      You wrote: “In other words you can’t have a club that turns away students based on race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or religion (for example). ”

      Interesting that the only group on that list that’s purely a matter of choice is religion. Can’t help wondering why faith groups should be placed in the same protected category as all the others whose members are not in those groups by choice [race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation].   Isn’t that in itself  a kind of discrimination in favor of religious groups, the only “membership by choice” category so protected?

      • TheBlackCat

        They include religion in the non-discrimination policy because religion is often a grounds for descrimination.  Whether it is a choice is irrelevent.  It is a pragmatic decision based on how discrimination works in the real world.

        • Bob Becker

          Understood but doing that puts the school in what seems to me the absurd position of insisting that the Baptist Student Aliance MUST admit non-Baptists. Or that the Catholic Student Union must admit even anti-Catholic zealots.

        • Bob Becker

          Understood but doing that puts the school in what seems to me the absurd position of insisting that the Baptist Student Aliance MUST admit non-Baptists. Or that the Catholic Student Union must admit even anti-Catholic zealots.

        • Bob Becker

          Understood but doing that puts the school in what seems to me the absurd position of insisting that the Baptist Student Aliance MUST admit non-Baptists. Or that the Catholic Student Union must admit even anti-Catholic zealots.

      • TheBlackCat

        They include religion in the non-discrimination policy because religion is often a grounds for descrimination.  Whether it is a choice is irrelevent.  It is a pragmatic decision based on how discrimination works in the real world.

  • http://friendlyatheist.com Richard Wade

    Regardless on which side your opinion falls, rules requiring belief in a club’s precepts to somehow preserve the “purity,” and  fears about infiltration by “the bad guys” in either Christian or atheist clubs with the intent to disrupt the club all assume one thing:

    That you can somehow accurately assess the true beliefs of a student who wants to join a club.

    With or without discriminatory club policies, anybody can claim that they’re a Christian or they’re an atheist. How the heck are you going to prove or disprove that?  A polygraph? Oh please. Is there a blood test for this? A DNA marker? 

    The Vanderbilt group –- and the national CLS organization
    are worried about “infiltration”, arguing that a person hostile to the
    group could rise to a leadership position, then attempt to tear it apart
    through conflict.

    Give me a break. Life is too short, college is too short to waste any time playing Super Secret Ninja Spy to bring down your college club.  Delusions of persecution almost always require delusions of grandeur as well.  You have a very magnified estimate of your own importance. Sorry to spoil your fantasy, but nobody cares enough about you to bother.

    Does anyone know of a verifiable case where a deep cover Christian or atheist mole spent months or years of elaborate deception to finally work their way to be an atheist club’s or a Christian club’s Manchurian Candidate?

    • http://twitter.com/the_ewan Ewan

      Um, no. Because they didn’t make it a test about invisible, unverifiable beliefs, they made it a test about actions. The slide’s right there at the top of the post:

      Each officer is expected to lead Bible studies, prayer and worship at chapter meetings

      That’s a pretty fair requirement for a Bible studying, praying and worshipping group. No attempt to “assess the true beliefs of a student” here.

      And as for:

      Life is too short

      You are grossly underestimating the amount of time and effort that students can find to put into a prank or a cause.

  • Kira

    I and a few friends want to become part of the leadership of your site.  As leaders, we would naturally expect to have full say as to what material is posted.  Let us know how we go about this, ok?  We already know we have your backing to do so because of your stance detailed above, right?

  • Sloane Graff

    This a good ruling.  Christian groups should welcome atheists.  The more that are exposed to the Truth, the better!

  • David Osborne

    Now this stirkes me as important. After all, if this isn’t resolved immediately ( no, wait; how about after extensive debate? ) we can expect a virtual floodgate of aetheists joining, and, God forbid ( no pun intended) , LEADING, Christian,Muslim and Jewish organizations…….
    Come on. For Chrissakes (no pun intentded), let’s focus our awaesome inteelectual powers and incisive journalistic resources on a “problem” that actully has the potential to become a PROBLEM.

  • Thechrisbotch

    you people are just as bad if not worse than the christians


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