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 since the Hastings victory. "We're seeing more of these cases than I think we've ever seen," he said.
Such challenges are also becoming more intentional, said Kim Colby, CLS senior counsel. "When the issue arose [a decade ago], it was relatively novel, and one could believe that … administrators simply blundered into disrespecting religious groups without thinking the issue through," she said. "Vanderbilt is intentionally leading the way for other universities to adopt the same policy." (Vanderbilt declined an interview but said trend-setting had not entered into its decision-making process.)
Lundgren said InterVarsity approaches each new case with a relational focus. "At each school, there are some real differences," he said. "You can't assume what actually is motivating the schools when you start talking with them. If you do, you just create animosity."
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Previous Christianity Today coverage on education includes:
Agents of Translation: Philip Eaton on 'Engaging the Culture, Changing the World' | Christian colleges should fluently speak the language of both the gospel and the surrounding culture. (August 16, 2011)
Christian Colleges Hope House Bill Will Repeal New Rules | CCCU says government's solution to for-profit problems threatens schools' autonomy. (June 30, 2011)
Christian Legal Society Loses in Supreme Court Case | Group must allow leaders who disagree with its statement of faith. (June 28, 2010)
Small Ruling Is Potentially Huge for Student Groups | Christian Legal Society lawyer notes that exceptions to rules can be as discriminatory as rules themselves. (March 19, 2009)
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