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Students, administrators discuss nondiscrimination policy at Furman

by | Feb. 1, 2012, 4:15 PM

Vanderbilt officials dialogue with students and other members of the university community Jan. 31 at a town hall meeting. (Mike Todd/Vanderbilt)

Three Vanderbilt administrators spoke and answered questions about the university’s nondiscrimination policy and its application to registered student organizations for more than three hours, with a highly charged atmosphere gradually evolving into a thoughtful and heartfelt discussion of the issues.

The meeting in Furman Hall got underway at 6:15 p.m. Jan. 31.  Provost and Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCarty, the university’s legal counsel and the dean of the divinity school made opening remarks and then took questions. Many students wore white shirts to signify their belief that religious organizations should have more latitude in setting standards for leadership in their organizations, while others wore capes decorated with rainbows to show their belief that the nondiscrimination policy was vital to the university’s diversity and to its gay community.

“We want to work with you,” McCarty said to leaders of campus groups concerned that the nondiscrimination policy might force them to compromise their beliefs. “We want to help. We want to keep you on this campus.”

Several students said they had received mixed messages about the content of the nondiscrimination policy. David Williams, vice chancellor for university affairs, general counsel and secretary of the university, apologized for any confusion.  He and the provost explained that the meeting had been scheduled as part of a broader effort to disseminate the policy and make sure it was widely understood.

“We have not changed our policy,” he said. “We shouldn’t be about closed doors… If you are a student at Vanderbilt, you have a right to join any organization.”

The forum was moderated by James Hudnut-Beumler, dean of the divinity school.

Some religious groups have claimed that their organizations need to have a faith requirement for their leaders so that the mission of their organizations is not compromised.

“You can’t lead me in my faith if you don’t share my faith,” one student said.

Williams explained that Vanderbilt’s nondiscrimination policy is an “all-comers” policy, under which any Vanderbilt student is free to join and seek a leadership position in any Vanderbilt registered student group, regardless of such factors as the student’s race, gender, sexual orientation, or religious beliefs. However, the individual members of every group have the right to elect the leaders of their choice. An all-comers policy, adopted by a public law school in California, was recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court against a First Amendment challenge by the Christian Legal Society.

McCarty stressed that Vanderbilt is not forcing any group to select any particular person as a leader.  “I’m saying be open to it, be open to inspired leadership that might come along from somewhere unexpected,” McCarty said. “I’m not saying you have to (elect anybody), just be open to the idea.”

Some students worried that those with beliefs antithetical to those of a group could join and become leaders in order to engage in a “hostile takeover,” though no one cited any actual examples.  Other students said that religious groups could lose their integrity if anyone were eligible for leadership.

“I cannot separate my decision-making from my faith,” one student said. “I fall under an authority that is greater than Vanderbilt, and that is the Roman Catholic Church.”

As a counterpoint, a student described his experience becoming active in a church as a non-believer and eventually converting. Another student told of his experience being an officer in an Asian student group even though he isn’t Asian.

“I have grown a lot by being a member of this organization,” the student said. “I have been able to take this position and grow as a person.”

About midway through the forum, some of the attendees walked out as part of an apparent protest. Those who remained continued an intense, respectful discussion with the provost and vice-chancellor. A number of students thanked the administration for scheduling the meeting and the provost and vice chancellor for their patience.  Only after the last question was asked and answered was the meeting called to a close by Dean Hudnut-Beumler.

Discussions will continue as long as they are fruitful, McCarty said, and further thought would be given to some of the hard questions posed.  He added, “We won’t backtrack on our bedrock policy of nondiscrimination. If we weakened the nondiscrimination policy, people who are your classmates would suffer.”

Media Inquiries:
Jim Patterson, (615) 322-NEWS

  • Anonymous

    It is shameful that the the University I attended has lowered itself to this sort of closed-minded, oppressive policy making.  The university is now embarrassing itself before the public eye.  I will no longer support VU as an alumnus nor recommend further consideration of attendance to any of my friend’s children.  

    • You’re calling a policy of nondiscrimination close-minded and oppressive? Let’s talk about the fact that religions, by definition, are discriminatory organizations. A segregation based on belief is required to become a part of the group, and any other opinions are not welcome. What Vandy is doing is not embarrassing. On the contrary, it is making strong headways against the doublethink that is organized religion. As an outsider (read: atheist) looking into this whole situation, it is amusing that religious organizations would be up in arms about a policy that, at its core, promotes acceptance. We would not be having this type of discussion if they University was setting a policy about non-discrimination based on skin color. Everyone would be in agreement that the White Supremacist group should not receive school funds. But just because it covers the field of imaginary friends, people feel oppressed because they can’t exclude those who don’t believe in the same fairy tales as them. 

  • :/

    This is a disgrace.  I am very disappointed with Vandy.  I will allow my child to attend this school or sporting events there.  I hope that all athletes who are members of the FCS will find a school that will respect their Christian rights. 

  • RG4VU

    Oppressive? Seriously? Sounds like the University stands for just the opposite to me. Aren’t we taught to love our neighbors in the bible? It doesn’t say love your neighbor only if they are of your faith. How hypocritical. I support Vanderbilt 100%!

  • ProudAlum

    Oppressive? Close-minded? It’s the exact opposite. Maybe you didn’t read the article…

  • Jenny

    So the fraternities are now open to women and the sororities are now open to men? We certainly wouldn’t want to discriminate on the basis of gender.

    • Please see Tittle 9.  thank you.

    • Douglas

      Title IX federal law protects the right of fraternities/sororities to discriminate on the basis of gender, so that is an especially enumerated exception. 

      • Jenny

        And the Constitution protects the free exercise of religion.

        So gender discrimination good, religious discrimination for leadership roles in religious groups bad? Got it.

        Vanderbilt can do what it likes; I’m not suggesting these actions are illegal, just poorly reasoned.

  • 1. The policy is not new, it’s just that some groups, all religious, all supposedly christian, have gotten away with violating the policy for far too long.

    2. All students pay the Activities Fee, thus all students must have equal access to all organizations funded by those fees.  This means allowing all students the ability to join and the ability to run for leadership positions without being discriminated against based on race, religion, creed, color, gender, or sexual orientation*. 

    3. If you benefit from the non-discrimination policy, you must also abide by it. Christians cannot simultaneously enjoy the protection of the policy themselves while denying its protection to others, which is precisely what the loudest group of protestors is after.

    4. If you really hate the policy that much, then put your money where your mouth is. Talk is cheap, so shut-up, reject the university’s money and free facilities and go discriminate against whomever you wish.

    *I know some christians believe that sexual orientation is a choice, but I myself am a christian, and I know that I didn’t choose to be straight, so I assume most people who aren’t straight didn’t choose that either.

    • david1percent

      And you are as Christian as anyone.  Even if you believe homosexuality is a sin, we are all sinners!  Acceptance is one of the main teachings of the New Testament.  Which of you will throw the first stone?

    • Jason

      Those fees benefit all orgs equally right? And orgs get those fees directly to advance their purposes, not a department of the university gets a portion of those fees to oversee (advise) these groups on behalf of the school right?

      The issue is favoring one form of discrimination over another. And in this case favoring a huge discrimination against many students in order to supposedly protect a very small group of students. However, you do not effectively change the behavior of any group. Instead, you end groups. You deny opportunity to everyone in hopes that it won’t be denied to a select few. Everyone is harmed, most of all the diversity and academic freedom of the university.

      On your fourth point I think we are in agreement. The university currently provides almost nothing of tangible value, and imposes far too much regulation in return. I think this will ultimately end with the vast majority of student orgs disaffiliating with the institution and continuing to operate off campus. With them will go the majority of annual donations to the university. Greek housing will be an issue. An arrangement will need to be reached on either purchase or compensation, which truly is unfortunate.

    • Questioning student

      As a recent graduate, I should inform those concerned that religious organizations do not receive funds from student activities pool of money. This is primarily because they are religious organizations. Therefore, if they do not receive these funds, why should they be held to the standard? Food for thought

  • T.Jefferson

    Those would be valid points, I suppose, if the university allowed one and only one campus organization for a particular religious group (ie: all Christians or all Catholics or what have you); however, since that is not the case, those not accepted into the current organizations for whatever reason are perfectly free to start their own competing organization. Thus, the University is simple choosing to trample on student’s rights to freedom of religion and association in the name of “non-discrimination.”

  • I’m sorry I fail to see how this is oppressive, perhaps I
    missed something (please, do clarify if I missed something). 

    In summary: They
    are allowing anyone to apply for a leadership position in these groups and also
    allowing the groups to select their own leadership.  So, basically, as a
    female who believes in religion A I can apply for a leadership position at
    religion B that only allows male leadership HOWEVER religion B doesn’t have to
    hire me.  Where’s the problem?  You, the group who are ‘hiring,’ if
    you will, are the ones making the end decision.  So I ask again, where is
    the problem?  You just have a larger and more diverse applicant pool and
    more denial letters to deliver. This is only a problem if you are unable to say
    ‘no thank you.’ 

    This could also be an opportunity to attempt to convert
    applicants who are not of your faith. 
    Clearly I must have been interested in religion B or I would not have
    applied or even known about the opening if I wasn’t looking at the religion in
    the first place. 

  • Anonymous

    It’s going to be tough for our quarterback in the NFL.  How can you keep the sabbath working every Sunday? Playing football in sackcloth will be tough as well.
    Do these groups respect and support the tenets of all religions?  Will they protest in favor of sharia law if devout Muslim students feel oppressed?  It is about religious freedom, isn’t it?

    It seems they are willing to exempt themselves from some Biblical teachings.  They aren’t supposed to cut their hair, wear blended fabrics, or even eat shellfish according to Leviticus.  They are allowed multiple spouses and may own slaves however if they want to.  They are claiming that they are strict followers of biblical principles but I have already pointed out 6 and there are hundreds of exemptions they are giving themselves. How convenient. Now how about just letting the rest of us feed our families and save patients lives?

    There is also discussion of the ratio of supporters to non-supporters of their cause.  There are over 500 registered domestic partnerships being provided benefits at Vanderbilt.  Since only roughly 20% of gay people identify as being partnered that means there are quite a few gay employees that are affected by the protections in the non-discrimination policy. That would reflect roughly 10% of the employee population and doesn’t even cover students. Our policy covers many groups that are far smaller but no less valid.  We all follow the same rules because we all have equal value.

    We seem to have employees violating our media and social media policy as well.  I have seen hundreds of writings and interviews by an employee and at no time have I seen a disclaimer stating that these are their views and don’t reflect the institution. They discuss their anti-gay views, opposition to affirmative action, and publicly endorse political candidates and those all violate policies. Let’s start with enforcing our policies before we worry about changing them. Let’s make the rules fit all employees and not just the little people.

    I have a bushel basket full of tickets stubs and have thousands of dollars worth of Vanderbilt logo merchandise.  I guess our Christian athletes would rather we don’t attend their games and support them?  Just let us know please.  Maybe we could get an official declaration from our quarterback. I am frequently saddened at the lack of support many of the teams get.  But I show up.  To everything. And I take people with me.  But go ahead and call me an abomination or a perversion and then hand me the lyrics to RockyTop.

    Send your kids to a Christian school please.  They need the support. I bet you won’t turn down your tuition credit from Vandy will you?  Give it back.  Make a statement. Belmont is right down the street and they fired their award winning Ladies Soccer Coach. That should fit your needs nicely. She, her partner, and their new baby are doing well, despite another educational institutions failure to support their employees.

    The biggest bias in this whole equation is that the assumption is that there aren’t gay Christians.  I know many. If you won’t keep an athlete out for violating the sabbath then why would you keep a Christian out for any other reason? If it’s the rules you are so consumed by start by obeying them yourselves. 

    I am guessing that there won’t be a ton of gay kids joining these groups but I am also willing to believe that plans have been made for a Christian assault on Muslim, Jewish, Asian, Gay, and other groups. Let’s plan on that and keep score.

    The idea that bringing in outside money and groups should have any influence is silly.  This is not a democracy nor is it a political institution. 

    I am just happy to see that some of these kids made it to college.  Given the suicide rate among gay teens I think these kids deserve all the credit in the world for surviving the abuse and trying to improve their lot in life.

    Enjoy your faith and leave me out of it.  I have no need to have a blessed day.  I just want to have a good one and feed my family. I am behind Vanderbilt University 100%.

    • david1percent

      You make some logical points, but you have not idea what Christianity is about. You need to find out what the New Covennent is before you make decisions on who is right or wrong. 

      • Mykleondek

        You mean the part where you change the inconvenient rules for yourselves so you can exclude others? Roman Catholics wrote the Bible.  So if you are not Roman Catholic I am having a hard time figuring out why you use someone elses book to worship.

        Christianity is the belief in Christ as your lord and savior. Nothing more. The hundreds of forms it takes are people who didn’t like the rules, changed them, and instead of coming up with their own name tried to take over the one that already had a definition.  Isn’t that what you folks say about marriage?  It had a definition and now others are trying to change it?  But you did.  It’s okay as long as the chips fall where you want them to.  I went to Catholic school and then attended an Episcopalian Church.  By the way, they allow gay partnerships and gay clergy.  Gay Christians in other words.  I understandit quite well. I also understand how you pick and chose what you want so basically it isn’t about faith but about bigotry because you can change what you believe. The New Covenant?  How convenient.
        In addition to not writing the Bible Christ also never read it.  He was dead for 70 years before it even became an idea.

        • david1percent

          You are quite wrong. The Bible in one form was compiled by a Roman. It was written by a number of people; Jews, Greeks, Romans and more. I am not Roman Catholic and have read many various “Bibles”. If you have no faith it will mean nothing to you. Obviously, you fit in this category.
          I have no problem with gay Christians or purple Christians or Christians from the moon. Why do you think everyone else should be just like you!
          Quite frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with what the University is doing or saying. They are not choosing the leaders, just saying everyone should have an opportunity to be considered. I do have a problem with your bigoted ideas.

        • david1percent

          You are quite wrong. The Bible in one form was compiled by a Roman. It was written by a number of people; Jews, Greeks, Romans and more. I am not Roman Catholic and have read many various “Bibles”. If you have no faith it will mean nothing to you. Obviously, you fit in this category.
          I have no problem with gay Christians or purple Christians or Christians from the moon. Why do you think everyone else should be just like you!
          Quite frankly, I don’t see anything wrong with what the University is doing or saying. They are not choosing the leaders, just saying everyone should have an opportunity to be considered. I do have a problem with your bigoted ideas.

        • david1percent

          There are many other churches with their own Bibles that had nothing to do with Roman Catholics. Churches in Greece, Russia, Armenia, Africa, and more. Somehow, they believe in Jesus.
          There are many other faiths in the world; are they all fools, as well, because they don’t believe what you believe? I guess you think there should be no “rules”. Or should everyone else just follow your rules while you do whatever you want.

        • david1percent

          There are many other churches with their own Bibles that had nothing to do with Roman Catholics. Churches in Greece, Russia, Armenia, Africa, and more. Somehow, they believe in Jesus.
          There are many other faiths in the world; are they all fools, as well, because they don’t believe what you believe? I guess you think there should be no “rules”. Or should everyone else just follow your rules while you do whatever you want.

  • American1st

    The posts on this topic are a perfect example of why it is wrong to force faith based religions to accept faithless people or those whose faith is directed toward different gods, as members and potential leaders.  Just read the anti-Christian posts below. 

    Some people are accusing Christians of being hypocrites and discriminating for wanting their freedom of religion.  It would only be discrimination if the University made a policy that said “we will only allow Christian groups to exist on campus”, but that is not the case.  Other religions have the right to have their own groups.  And I haven’t seen any posts below making accusations against people of other religions not allowing Christians to join their groups.  Am I missing something here or am I correct?   Can someone tell me how many professing Christians are currently members of muslim or athiest or buddest groups on campus?

    You can’t compare religious groups with the “chess club”, because there is not an outright hatred by some people against people who play chess, unlike the expressions below against those who follow Christ.  While we may not all be Christians, I thought we were all Americans.

    What purpose would someone have for joining a Christian group if they hate Christianity? 

    To those who have made hateful comments or accusations against Christians in the posts below.  Have any of you attempted to join a Christain group on campus and been denied membership?   I doubt it.  So why is this sort of policy being forced on religious organizations?   It is obvious from the comments below that some people believe a lot of non-Christian students are being denied membership to Christian organizations, so it must be a significant enough problem to justify a policy to put a stop to this.

    This Non-Discrimination Policy does the very thing that it claims to be preventing. 

  • Fearless Bear

    If this were a policy limited to religion, it would be aprohibition sgainst free exercise thereof. After all, a Christian should not be forced on a Jewish or Islamic group, nor bice versa. But it is broader. It affects pursuits such as Republican, Communist, Democrat and Libertarian. If Vandy were the Feds, Vandy could not interfere with associational freedom, because it would violate the First Amendment. But Vandy is not the Government. That does not excuse or justify a stupid policy, it merely makes it harder to challenge in court. Pray tell what lesson is Vandy teaching by this now so-called “all comers” policy? Are students who are old enough to vote and die in the armed forces not responsible enough to choose who they wish to assocate with? I cannot find a single reason why this is a good policy. I do hope it is a “tesching moment”., though. Administrators can be oppressive and misguided. Government with too much power is even a greater threat.

  • Sarah Fowler

    “We want to work with you.” says McCarty? Well then why wasn’t this new rule proposed as a vote to the Vanderbilt campus instead of forced onto students?

    A one size fits all approach is not productive — I think instead of throwing out blanket statements Vanderbilt needs to take a step back and assess each group on a case by case basis. Otherwise it undermines the purpose of groups all together, specifically religious groups. 

    Recently met with several other alumni in Houston, and we all came to the same conclusion: Vanderbilt’s policy is well intentioned, but poorly constructed.

  • Eah1331

    I believe that a free and open exchange of ideas is a good thing.  Religious organizations are not being discriminated against.  They are being prevented from discriminating against others.  This is a good thing.  The administration is merely enforcing a policy that has been in place for a long time.  Some groups, after agreeing to abide by the policy, have ignored it.  The rules are in  place for a reason and the rules must aply to everyone, even religious organizations.  And it is not a bad rule.  No one is trying to tell these detractors how to worship or who to select for leadership.  The policy simply states that anyone can run for a leadership position.  The members of the organization will still vote for who they want.  They are totally free to do that. 

    Then there is the issure of sexual orientation.  Hmm.  That is a heated one.  I suppose we must go back to the Bible for that.  “Judge not lest ye be judged” comes to mind.  Denying membership to someone because of sexual orientation is very simply discrimination and can even be called hate in some cases.  Welcome that person and leave the acceptance or rejection part up to God.  Gay folks can be Christians too.

     Remeber Jesus sat down and ate and drank with folks who didn’t believe as he did.  Jesus was quite a guy.  He was devoted to his Father in heaven and still engaged in an exchange of ideas with those who didn’t believe as he did.  A lot of good can come out of talking with people who have different beliefs.  Most notably, understanding.

    There is a lesson there for all of us.  Not just Christians.  All of us.  Let’s all try to calm down and remember that.   

  • Computernerd225

    A gay, Christian student was kicked out of a Christian fraternity for being gay.

    • Pragmatist

      Then that student should start a group for gay Christians.

    • Fearless Bear

      My understanding is that the fraternity members pledge not to engage in intercourse. This fellow was not kicked out for being gay, but for violating the pledge. Heterosexuals get the same penalty. The scandal is that Vandy apparently decided to use this fellow as an excuse for removing the phrase on non-interference with religion from
      its official policy, and to adopt an “anyone qualifies” policy for all organizations. The result is a policy that is stupid, insulting to serious groups (religious or not) and demonstrates an imperious attitude, rather than a truly open forum attitude of respect for differences.

  • Anonymous

    I am disappointed but not shocked that this article did not provide more of Vice Chancellor McCarty’s comments to the students.  Please “Google” the following:  “The Fallout from Christian Legal Society”.  

  • cmrenier

    Provost McCarty’s comments, expanded in the National Review 
    ( are chilling.

  • Fuson33

    What sort of “Christian” wouldn’t welcome everybody into his or her group? Have you heard about Jesus? He welcomed everybody. Maybe you haven’t read the part in the bible about the woman at the well. Jesus wasn’t thrilled by her behavior but he welcomed her anyway. Maybe the folks who want to be oh so exclusive should read their bibles. It’s a pretty interesting book.

    • PFBerg

      I think you misunderstand the situation.  The Christian groups on Vanderbilt’s campus already do welcome anyone to participate and attend their events.  Any group (religious, political, or otherwise) that wants to communicate its ideas to members of the university community will always want to reach out to those who think differently.  So that is not the issue here.  The problem is that the administration is trying to impose its system of how leaders of the groups are chosen.  So if a Christian student group says its leaders need to be Christian (hardly a shocking or surprising requirement), the administration’s new policy calls that “intolerence”, and says the group must be kicked off campus.  Same for a Muslim, Hindu, or any other religious student group.  So instead of allowing a “free marketplace of ideas” where differing viewpoints (religious, political, social, etc.) can be rigorously and politely debated, the administration is pursuing a policy that requires groups to abandon (or at least water down) their values in the interest of political correctness.

  • Saracenojo

    This is sooooooooooo crazy!  It’s a Christian organization.  They should be able to set a standard as to the qualifications of a leader, i. e. be a Christian.  Memebership though is open to all. 

    Why is this so difficult?

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