NASHVILLE - Pieter Valk smiled easily as he settled into a chair in a coffee shop on the edge of Vanderbilt University on Monday afternoon. He checked his phone almost reflexively, apologizing when it buzzed with yet another message. For the last week, Valk's fielded calls incessantly - answering questions from reporters and keeping tabs on plans for several events scheduled this week ahead of Vanderbilt's Board of Trust meeting on Friday.
He looks too relaxed to be studying for finals and helping to lead a campaign to convince school officials to abandon their attack on campus Christian groups.
Valk, a junior Chemistry major, is one of about 15 student leaders from 13 organizations opposing Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy, which now requires religious groups to open leadership positions to anyone, regardless of personal beliefs. United in their determination to fight for the opportunity to build community based on Christian orthodoxy, the students have gotten a crash course in grassroots organizing and civil disobedience.
Opposition to the policy has united at least 13 of the school's Christian organizations, which previously operated independently, while at least two organizations (Reformed University Fellowship and Baptist Christian Ministries) have decided to support the policy. The student leaders, many of whom didn't know each other before this year, now meet at least twice a month to strategize and pray for one another. Even if they don't succeed in persuading administrators to rescind the policy, Valk believes they've already won the spiritual battle and learned the lesson God was trying to teach.
"The point is obviously not the policy," Valk said, pointing out that God in his sovereignty allows the policy to continue for a reason. "God is stirring up unity, boldness and a willingness to follow the Holy Spirit for a much greater purpose."
Last week, the student leaders issued their first news release, announcing their solidarity and opposition to the policy. Eleven of the groups submitted applications for official recognition that did not include the newly required affirmation of the nondiscrimination policy. Unless school trustees order administrators to change course, the groups' applications will be denied. The twelfth group, Vanderbilt Catholic, announced two weeks ago that it would sever ties with the university. A few days later, administrators sent the group a letter demanding it stop using the school's name as part of its identification.
On Sunday, Vanderbilt Catholic organized a Eucharistic Procession across campus. Carrying candles, ringing bells and burning incense, a small parade of students walked past classroom buildings and residence halls, praying aloud for God's mercy and deliverance. Although school officials say the group can continue using the Interfaith chapel for mass, its leaders don't know whether they'll be able to hold the procession next year.
Vanderbilt administrators have so far been impervious to every attempt to persuade them to abandon the policy. The struggle feels very much like a "David and Goliath" battle, said Justin Gunter, a third-year law student and president of the Christian Legal Society. None of the students in charge of the opposition movement have much experience lobbying or running campaigns, and they all have other things going on, including all-important final exams. Vanderbilt administrators have an entire staff to draft policies, as well as an outside legal team from one of the nation's most prestigious law firms advising them, Gunter said.
Because Vanderbilt is a private university, the students don't have any legal recourse to force a policy change. All they can do is ask and reason with administrators. Ironically, Gunter supports the school's right to operate as it chooses, even as it denies him and other Christians the same opportunity. Whatever standards apply to Vanderbilt also apply to private Christian universities, which should have the right to proclaim a narrow set of beliefs, Gunter said. But the difference between Vanderbilt and a Christian school, like the conservative Bob Jones University, is that Vanderbilt represents itself as something it's not, he said.
"And so in my mind, there's no problem if Vanderbilt wants to become the Bob Jones of the left," Gunter said. "They have the right to do that. But the problem comes when they represent themselves as being diverse but don't actually support diversity."
Groups opposing Vandeerbilt's nondiscrimination policy
Asian American Christian Fellowship
Fellowship of Christian Athletes
Medical Christian Fellowship
Graduate Christian Fellowship
Lutheran Student Fellowship
Every Nation Ministries
Beta Upsilon Chi
Christian Legal Society