Vanderbilt Catholic, one of the largest religious groups at the Nashville, Tenn., university, will not comply with the school's new nondiscrimination policy, joining at least four evangelical protestant groups in an exodus from campus.
The new policy requires student organization leaders to sign an affirmation of the policy, which prevents all groups from picking leaders based on their beliefs. In a letter posted to the Vanderbilt Catholic website, the five members of its student board said after talking, thinking and praying about the situation, they could not in good conscience meet the school's requirement.
"While organizational skills and leadership abilities are important qualifications for leaders of Vanderbilt+Catholic, the primary qualification for leadership is Catholic faith and practice," the letter says. "We are a faith-based organization. A Catholic student organization led by someone who neither professes the Catholic faith nor strives to live it out would not be able to serve its members as an authentically Catholic organization."
In giving up its status as an official student organization, Vanderbilt Catholic loses its right to meet in school facilities, advertise its meetings at school events and apply for student fee funding. It also must give up its name, which ties the group directly to the school.
Vanderbilt University administrators adopted the new nondiscrimination policy last year after Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi removed one of its leaders over his disagreement with the group's beliefs about homosexuality. The fraternity's constitution required leaders to adhere to a statement of faith, something school officials decided would no longer be allowed. Three other Christian groups - Graduate Christian Fellowship, Christian Legal Society and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes - had similar clauses in their constitutions.
After holding a public meeting to discuss the policy on Jan. 31, administrators gave the groups until mid April to submit new constitutions free of leadership requirements. All four said they would not and began plans to move off campus.
Although Vanderbilt Catholic did not have a constitution that violated school policy, university administrators forced the group's hand by asking its members to affirm the nondiscrimination requirements, Fr. John Sims Baker, the group's chaplain, said in a letter sent to parents and supporters.
The group is choosing to view its new off-campus status as an opportunity, Baker said: "As God has clearly closed this door, He has also clearly opened other windows of opportunity to propose Jesus Christ and to form His disciples at Vanderbilt and at other campuses throughout the city."
In a prepared statement issued Tuesday, Beth Fortune, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for public affairs, said Vanderbilt Catholic's decision deeply disappointed school administrators, who disputed claims the policy restricts religious liberty.
"In fact, we do not believe our nondiscrimination policy to be incompatible with religious freedom," Fortune said. "Vanderbilt's policy does not mandate whom student organizations should elect as leaders - it simply allows for anyone to be eligible for membership and to seek a leadership position. Student organizations do and will always have the right to elect the leaders of their choosing."
Baker, a graduate of Vanderbilt's law school, regularly posted criticisms of the policy on his blog in recent months. In one post, he called it "a remarkable document worthy of the best tradition of totalitarian double speak." In his letter to supporters, Baker praised the group's student leaders for standing up to school administrators.
"Their resolve makes our situation a success story rather than a failure," he said. "It has become quite clear to the students that we either stand for something or fall for anything. We choose to stand for Jesus Christ, and we expect that our leadership do the same."