Religion
8:16 am
Thu March 22, 2012

Vanderbilt Rule Rankles Faith-Based Student Groups

Originally published on Thu March 22, 2012 4:05 pm

Administrators at Vanderbilt University are beginning to enforce a long-held nondiscrimination policy for student groups. The policy is forcing a dilemma for faith-based organizations: Either drop requirements that their leaders hold certain beliefs, or forfeit school funding and move off campus.

Members of Christian student groups say Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy has them feeling more like victims of discrimination. They include the school's star quarterback, junior Jordan Rogers.

The little brother of NFL superstar Aaron Rogers is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It's one of more than 400 student groups at Vanderbilt being required to comply with an "all comers" rule. College Democrats have to accept Republicans and vice versa, and religious groups must welcome atheists. They say they're fine with that.

But under the policy, all group members must also be eligible for leadership positions, which is where many draw the line. Rogers joined the chorus of opposition at a recent town hall meeting on campus.

"If someone that doesn't share the faith is teaching," Rogers asked, "then what's the point of even having these organizations?"

A Longtime Policy, Newly Enforced

A 2010 Supreme Court decision affirmed that institutions can legally refuse to recognize a religious organization unless it allows all students to join. As on other campuses, controversy surfaced at Vanderbilt when several gay students were asked to leave a religious fraternity. That's when the university stepped up enforcement of its nondiscrimination policy.

School administrators believe they have support from most students, though few speak out at public forums. Student Cole Garrett is one of the few who have spoken publicly in support of the rule.

"My name is Cole Garrett," he said at a recent forum. "As you may assume by the giant rainbow flag on my back, I am a gay man, and this is a very sensitive and important issue to me."

Garrett says the all comers rule has also allowed him to become an officer in the Asian American Student Association, even though he has no Asian ancestry.

At a campus volleyball tournament, where sorority sisters in matching tank tops are practicing, sophomore Christine Rodriguez says she supports the university's position. She says the school's faith groups are dancing around the real issue: sexual orientation.

"Because obviously they can't openly say, 'Oh yeah, the reason we're so angry is because ... we don't want gay people in our organization,' " she says. "But you'll hear it from other people like me."

Rodriguez is a proud member of Alpha Chi Omega, which doesn't exactly practice what she's preaching. But the selective pledging process of secular sororities and fraternities is unaffected: School officials say the federal statute known as Title IX protects the Greek system from the nondiscrimination rule.

University Stands Firm

Vanderbilt alumnus Thomas Singleton, a retired businessman and donor, sees hypocrisy in the fraternity and sorority exemption.

"If they insist on implementing this policy, I will probably stop all relationships with Vanderbilt," Singleton says. "Because I'm a Christian, and I feel like Christians have a right to express their views and to choose their leadership on this campus — and they seem to be the primary group that's singled out by this policy."

Despite alumni threatening to put away their checkbooks, university officials have resolved to stand their ground.

Vanderbilt Provost Richard McCarty sees maintaining the all comers rule as a way to overcome a checkered past with discrimination. The school kicked out a prominent black student during the civil rights era.

"And maybe some of us who are old enough to remember those days don't ever want to go back," he says.

Now, it may be religious groups that are asked to leave — but this time in the name of nondiscrimination.

Copyright 2013 Nashville Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.wpln.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

In Tennessee, administrators at Vanderbilt University have started to enforce a nondiscrimination policy for student groups. The policy has created a dilemma for faith-based organizations - either drop requirements that their leaders hold certain beliefs or forfeit school funding and move off campus.

Blake Farmer of member station WPLN reports.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Members of Christian student groups say Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy has them feeling more like victims of discrimination. They include the biggest man on campus.

JORDAN ROGERS: I'm Jordan Rogers, quarterback. A junior senior at...

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)

FARMER: The little brother of NFL superstar Aaron Rogers is a member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. It's one of more than 400 student groups at Vanderbilt being required to comply with an all comers rule. College Democrats have to accept Republicans and religious groups have to welcome atheists. They say they're fine with that.

But under the policy, all group members must also be eligible for leadership positions, which is where many draw the line. The star quarterback joined the chorus of opposition at a town hall meeting on campus.

ROGERS: If someone that doesn't share the faith is teaching, then what's the point of even having these organizations?

FARMER: A 2010 Supreme Court decision affirmed that institutions can legally refuse to recognize a religious organization unless it allows all students to join. Like other campuses, controversy surfaced at Vanderbilt when several gay students were asked to leave a religious fraternity. That's when the university stepped up enforcement of its nondiscrimination policy.

Administrators believe they have support from most students, though few speak out at public forums.

COLE GARRETT: My name is Cole Garrett. As you may assume by the giant rainbow flag on my back, I am a gay man. And this is a very sensitive and important issue to me.

FARMER: Garrett said the all comers rule has also allowed him to become an officer in the Asian-American Student Association, even though he has no Asian ancestry.

(SOUNDBITE OF A VOLLEYBALL GAME)

FARMER: A campus volleyball tournament, where sorority sisters in matching tank tops are practicing, sophomore Christine Rodriguez says she supports the university's position. And she believes faith groups are dancing around the real issue.

CHRISTINE RODRIGUEZ: Because obviously they can't openly say, oh, yeah, the reason we're angry is because we don't want gay people in our organization, you know. But you'll hear it from other people like me, I guess.

FARMER: Rodriguez is a proud member of Alpha Chi Omega, which doesn't exactly practice what she's preaching but the selective pledging process of secular sororities and fraternities is safe. School officials say the federal statute known as Title IX protects them from the nondiscrimination rule.

THOMAS SINGLETON: For them to exempt the Greeks, OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

FARMER: Thomas Singleton sees hypocrisy. He's a retired businessman, Vanderbilt alumnus, and donor who attended a recent forum.

SINGLETON: If they insist on implementing this policy, I will probably stop all relationships with Vanderbilt.

FARMER: Why is it that serious to you?

SINGLETON: Because I'm a Christian, and I feel like Christians have a right to express their views and to choose their leadership on this campus. And they seem to be the primary group that's singled out in this policy.

FARMER: Despite alumni threatening to put away their checkbooks, university officials have resolved to stand their ground. Vanderbilt Provost Richard McCarty sees maintaining the all comers rule as a way to overcome a checkered past with discrimination. The school kicked out a prominent black student during the Civil Rights era.

DR. RICHARD MCCARTY: And maybe some of us who are old enough to remember those days don't ever want to go back.

FARMER: Now though, it may be religious groups that are asked to leave but in the name of nondiscrimination.

For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.