When Vanderbilt University became the latest institution to investigate religious student groups for discriminatory leadership policies, it drew headlines and a congressional complaint. It also underscored the different way such disputes play out on private versus public campuses.
As of November 1, 4 of the Nashville school's 380 student groups remained on provisional status for being noncompliant with its non-discrimination policy. The student newspaper named the groups as Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society (CLS), Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and Christian sorority Sigma Phi Lambda—all of which require leaders to affirm Christian doctrines.
As a private university, Vanderbilt is not held to the same constitutional requirements as public universities such as the University of California Hastings College of the Law, which survived a Supreme Court challenge to its "all comers" policy by CLS last year. So media attention and public comments are the main defense for Christian groups at a private university, said Jim Lundgren, director of collegiate ministries at InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.
"You're not so much protected by Supreme Court decisions; you're protected by the court of public opinion," he said.
Any attempt at legal action might cause collateral damage for private Christian colleges, said Thomas Berg, professor of law and public policy at the University of St. Thomas. "Religious colleges themselves have significant interest in making decisions based on religion," he said. "So to prohibit religious discrimination by all private colleges … could really have a bad effect on the freedom of religious organizations."
Lundgren said such challenges to Christian campus groups have increased ...