Vanderbilt University will stand by its "all-comers" policy for student groups next fall, after a veto from Tennessee governor Bill Haslam in May stopped popular legislation that sought to block it.
The policy requires student groups to open membership and leadership positions to all. The legislation, which passed both state houses easily, would have instructed Tennessee's public universities—and Vanderbilt—to drop "all-comers" policies or extend them to now-exempt fraternities and sororities.
While Haslam disagrees with the policy, he said government interference in the policies of private institutions was inappropriate.
"It was the wrong decision," said Christian Legal Society (CLS) counsel Kim Colby. Christian groups should be able to require student leaders to be Christians, she said.
CLS is one of 15 Christian groups that refused to sign the new policy. The groups include more than 1,400 students. But some religious groups at Vanderbilt agreed with the veto.
"If you try to use [legislation] to force a private [school] to do something, that could come back to our evangelical colleges and seminaries," said Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) national coordinator Rod Mays. "People aren't really thinking through this process carefully to understand this could hurt us."
The campus ministry is led by an ordained chaplain and doesn't depend on student leaders, so RUF has signed the policy.
InterVarsity Christian Fellowship has recently been challenged at 41 campuses, said national field director Greg Jao. Much of what colleges want in an all-comers policy is laudable, he said. But what has gone wrong is lack of appreciation for the truth claims of faith organizations.
"Our position is informed in part by our understanding of history," said Jao. Student-focused missions—such as the YMCA—were once vibrant; but as they downplayed the need for students to embrace the core beliefs of Christianity, God removed them from campus life, he said.
"We've watched this kind of thing happen before," said Jao. "We're saying, 'Not on our watch.'"
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