The Baptist Collegiate Ministry at Vanderbilt University decided this week it cannot abide by the school's nondiscrimination policy after all.
The group applied for and received recognition as an official student organization in April. But the ministry will decline that status on principle, the executive director of the Tennessee Baptist Convention announced on Monday.
In an e-mail to members of the group's Executive Board, Randy Davis said he did not realize until April 22 that the application for recognition required the organization to sign an affirmation of the nondiscrimination policy.
The affirmation pledges the group's leaders will "abide by" the policy, which requires official student organizations to allow all members to seek leadership positions, even if they don't share the group's beliefs.
"To abide by that literally and practically means that I adopt this policy as my own," Davis said on Tuesday. "That's what I had to grapple with on a personal basis."
Davis knew the student group had applied for official recognition but did not examine the application until a Tennessee pastor sent him a Tweet asking whether the group had signed the affirmation. When he read the document, Davis said he knew the ministry couldn't comply.
Last month, Bill Choate, who heads collegiate ministries for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said the policy did not present any problems and did not prevent the group from carrying out its mission. But on Monday, Davis acknowledged the policy might force the group to accept student leaders who did not believe in Christ.
"That concerns me about where this could be heading in the days ahead with the administration of Vanderbilt," Davis said.
Rejecting the nondiscrimination policy became a matter of principle, Davis said. Echoing comments previously made by Fr. John Sims Baker, the chaplain of Vanderbilt Catholic, Davis blamed school officials for the exodus of Christian groups.
"The administration has driven us to this point of rejecting that status," he said.
The Baptist's change of heart leaves Reformed University Fellowship as the only large evangelical Protestant student group remaining on campus next year. Thirteen Christian groups opposed the policy from the beginning, saying it restricted their religious freedom. School officials say 17 others have complied with the policy but declined to name them all.
Some of the policy's opponents criticized BCM and RUF for complying. Standing together, the Christian organizations had a chance to persuade Vanderbilt administrators to back down, they said.
But school officials have shown no sign of abandoning the policy, despite appeals from students, pressure from alumni and the threat of legislative action.
On April 30, the Tennessee General Assembly passed a bill that would have revoked Vanderbilt's $24 million in state funding unless the school gave religious groups an exemption from the policy. Two days later, Gov. Bill Haslam announced his intention to veto the legislation, saying it violated the principle of limited government. As a private institution, Vanderbilt is free to adopt policies that might infringe on the religious freedom protections provided by the U.S. Constitution.
The Congressional Prayer Caucus also weighed in on the situation this week, sending letters of protest to Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos and Board of Trust Chairman Mark Dalton. A similar appeal the group sent to Zeppos in October had no effect.
Despite all the opposition, Vanderbilt administrators maintain the policy does not violate religious groups' freedom to operate without interference. The groups remain free to elect the leaders they want, administrators say.
But they have not explained what would happen if a group chose to remove a leader because he or she decided to abandon the group's beliefs. The school decided to update its nondiscrimination policy requirements last year after a student accused Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi of expelling him over his beliefs about homosexuality.
Davis said he was cautiously optimistic about his ministry's ability to continue ministering to the Vanderbilt community. Unlike most Christian groups, the BCM owns its own building on campus, where its students will continue to meet next year. But without a listing on the student organization website or access to events designed to give students information about all groups, educating new students about the ministry will be difficult, he said.
"We have some students that will be coming back and can help. But I know that it's going to be a much harder work."