Whatever Vandy wants, Vandy gets

When the experts start talking about elite private universities -- non-Atlantic Coast division -- Vanderbilt is always near the top of the list. The school is so prominent, especially as a member of a major sports conference, that people often forget that it is, in fact, a private school. This can affect news coverage.

As we have discussed a few times here at GetReligion, when it comes to making rules and enforcing them, private schools are literally in a different legal league than state schools. Private schools are voluntary associations and students choose to attend them, often signing lifestyle covenants or doctrinal statements that commit them to uphold certain beliefs and/or to abstain from certain activities. This is perfectly legal.

Now, whenever I bring this up, there will always be a reader or two who say that I am merely serving as an apologist for conservative Christians schools, in part because I am a faculty member with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU.org). Someone always misses the fact that what I am saying applies to liberal private colleges and universities, as well as to conservative schools.

This brings me to the latest twist in the plot of a major religion-news story unfolding at Vanderbilt, which long ago severed any of the ties that really matter to its Methodist heritage. People keep writing me expecting me to be upset about the fact that conservative religious groups are being driven off this liberal private campus and that newspapers are covering this story without screaming bloody murder about the injustice of all of this.

What's going on? Here is the latest, as written by Godbeat veteran Bob Smietana of The Nashville Tennessean.

One of the largest student religious groups at Vanderbilt will be leaving campus at the end of the year in a dispute over the university’s nondiscrimination policy.

That policy bars student groups from requiring their leaders to hold specific religious beliefs. Leaders of Vanderbilt Catholic said that rule makes no sense. They won’t comply and instead will become an independent, off-campus ministry.

“The discriminatory non-discrimination policy at Vanderbilt University has forced our hand,” said Rev. John Sims Baker, chaplain of Vanderbilt Catholic, in a statement Tuesday. “... Our purpose has always been to share the Gospel and proudly to proclaim our Catholic faith. What other reason could there be for a Catholic organization at Vanderbilt? How can we say it is not important that a Catholic lead a Catholic organization?”

A school official then notes that most of the school's 400 registered student organizations will attempt to comply with the law.

Presumably, this means that it will soon be possible for a Zionist to apply to lead the Muslim student union and, if denied a leadership slot, he or she will might even be able to charge the club with discrimination. You could, one must assume, end up with a right-wing, anti-Barack Obama Birther seeking a top post in the leadership of the campus Democrats.

Sound ridiculous? Well, that is the same line of thinking as saying that the Vanderbilt Catholic organization needs to be open to embracing as leaders those who actively and publicly oppose the teachings of the Catholic faith.

Here's a bit more background that hints at what is going on:

The dispute between Vanderbilt and religious groups began after a Christian fraternity expelled a gay member. That led the school to review the constitutions of all registered student groups to make sure they comply with the nondiscrimination policy.

Last fall, four religious groups at Vanderbilt were put on provisional status for violating the policy. Over the past year, the school and the groups have been trying to work out a compromise.

The university published a written version of their policy as well as new guidelines for registered student groups in early March.

The sticking point is over student leaders. The university says it has an “all-comers” policy -- meaning that groups must be open to all students and that every student should be allowed to run for office. Religious groups like Vanderbilt Catholic say any student can be a member. But leaders, they say, must uphold certain religious beliefs.

Tish Harrison, campus minister for the Graduate Christian Fellowship, said her group wants to apply for registered status. To do so, she said, the group’s leaders would have to affirm the non-discrimination in writing, and that’s a problem. “We can’t in good conscience sign the nondiscrimination policy,” she said.

This raises an obvious question: Is the lack of discrimination determined by rebels being allowed to SEEK leadership posts or to actually be SELECTED as leaders? I am sure the lawyers on both sides are looking into that. So a gay-rights group on the Vandy campus must be "open" to having an ex-lesbian as a member, and allowing her to seek office, but this does not mean that she needs to selected to serve on the leadership team. This is all about appearances, not reality. Right?

That's an interesting angle for questions, but, in the end, questions of this sort are beside the point. The key is that Vanderbilt leaders have every right -- as a private institution -- to make this kind of law and to enforce it, so long as this limitation on the freedom of association is clearly communicated to prospective and incoming students.

Journalists and other critics can ask if this kind of anti-discrimination discrimination is being done openly and honestly -- right out in the open. If not, students may have a right to feel offended. You see, students who head to Vanderbilt need to know that their freedom of association rights will be limited, just as students who advocate the moral acceptability of sex outside of marriage need to know that they will lose some rights if they attend a school that defends traditional beliefs among Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc.

Vanderbilt may face some fallout from parents, donors, local churches, whatever. But private schools -- liberal or conservative -- are allowed to discriminate. That's a key piece in this news puzzle.

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