Saturday, October 1, 2011

Campus Stifles Religious Organization

Vanderbilt University has placed the Christian Legal Society, a university-funded campus group, on probation because the group’s bylaws regarding leadership positions fail to adhere to the University’s non-discrimination policies.

Vanderbilt claims that CLS violates the University policy prohibiting groups to “preclude someone from a leadership position based on religious belief,” according to Vanderbilt’s Director of Religious Life, Rev. Gretchen Person. CLS bylaws provide that chapter officers “subscribe to the Christian Legal Society Statement of Faith.” For Vanderbilt, such a religious requirement by a religious organization discriminates against those who disagree with the group’s core beliefs but may still want to run for office of the group.

A quick look at the Statement of Faith will reveal that it is nothing less than reasonable and that it is highly unlikely for any CLS member – particularly one who wants an officer position – to reject the Statement. The controversial Statement of Faith is basically a truncated version of the Nicene Creed and proclaims one’s belief in the Holy Trinity, in the birth of Christ from the Virgin Mary, in His death for our sins, in His resurrection, in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the Bible as the Word of God.

As CLS understands it, chapter leaders are not coerced into any belief set. No one is forcing chapter leaders to believe anything they do not want to, and no one is forcing anyone to run for office. Group membership and holding office are entirely voluntary actions. Furthermore, CLS is not barring some students from running for office. If while in office, someone violates their conditions of officership, it is perfectly fine for the group to file an impeachment of sorts. Any term of employment comes with conditions. It is not the place of a university to dictate what those conditions may be as long as the conditions do not physically harm students.

Furthermore, one of the points of any group is that group members share and further a certain set of core beliefs. To have group leaders who do not ascribe to the group’s beliefs would counter the purpose of having a group. Religious organizations are centered on religious belief, and therefore it is completely reasonable for a religious group to require officers to abide by the beliefs of the group.

While Vanderbilt’s policy that groups should not discriminate against religious beliefs seems sound, the policy may force religious groups to contradict their actual mission statement. Just because secular groups cannot (and should not) discriminate because of religious beliefs, does not mean the same rules should apply to religious organizations. Although this may seem like a double standard, allowing religious groups to require certain religious beliefs in order to hold leadership roles simply recognizes the difference in purpose between religious and secular groups. For a secular group’s message to thrive, the religious views of the leaders are irrelevant. But for a religious group’s message to survive, the religious views of the leader can make all the difference.

Vanderbilt’s placing of religious groups such as CLS on probation violates those groups right to the free exercise of their religious beliefs. By dictating who can and cannot lead religious groups, the University inhibits the group’s ability to express their religious beliefs, thus violating the group’s right to free exercise.

Vanderbilt, in seeking to create an environment welcoming to all students, has created an environment hostile toward religious organizations. It is not the religious organizations that should be put on probation and forced to change their bylaws. Rather, Vanderbilt’s policy should be updated to recognize the free exercise rights of religious groups.


Harry R. said...

I disagree with Ashley in this case and feel that, due to the university funded nature of the group, they should not be allowed to dictate the beliefs of their leaders. Having such a rule limits the rights of some of their members and, while the focus is religious, that should not give them the right to violate school policy. The group does not have all of their free exercise rights due to their receiving public funding from the school. While the members could always vote for those who hold similar beliefs, having this practice formalized is unconstitutional.

Zoey Goldnick said...

While in some sense the group have violated the university's policy, there seems to be a conflict because it is permitted for group's to require a shared set of core beliefs. In addition, the school is a private institution. If the school does not deny funding to other groups who wish to have a presence on campus, I don't see this as a prohibiting of free exercise, seeing that the student has the right to create his own group with equal funding opportunities.

Casey K said...

The school is well with in their rights to make this rule a requirement for groups to receive funding. The rule is just making sure that any of the organizations members can run for office. If the other members desire to vote for someone who share their beliefs then they may, but to not let someone run because of their beliefs is something that the school can prevent. The rule that the group made is impeding on the rights of certain members. The rights of the religious group are not being limited by the university. The school is placing no barriers to the groups religious functions, or trying to impede the beliefs of the group. The government is limiting an action of the group that it has a strong interest in limiting because the action threatens the rights of others.

David P said...

Although I agree that the group should be able to maintain its core set of values and ensure the propagation of its cause, because it is University funded, it should not be made so that membership or holding office essentially requires one to be a devout Christian. If the group wants to be a private Christian group, then they should receive no funding from the University, perhaps tooking to a local church instead.

Sam S said...

I agree with Vanderbilt’s decision to put CLS on probation for violating their school’s policy. It is discriminatory for a religious group to not allow for a member to run for an officer position based purely on if they will not subscribe to a Statement of Faith. Even though most members that would want to run for an officer position would subscribe to the statement, it still is discrimination for them not to allow members who do not subscribe to the statement to run for an officer position.

Allison S said...

I agree with David. If the group wants to have such rules they should be funded privately rather than use university money. In that way the religious group is not directly going against the university policy and can continue to run their club the way they would like. I think that as long as the religious group has established their bylaws clearly to all the members and receives funding from anyplace other than the university there is no issue. I would also like to ask the question, why would a student run for a position in a religious club in which they do not hold the same religious beliefs? I think that this entire problem is Vanderbilt University attempting to fix something that isn’t broken.