The conflict between Vanderbilt University and several Christian organizations has reached a new intensity as thirty- six members of Congress have spoken out against the “all-comers” policy at the university. What is the ‘all-comers” policy? It is a policy that on the surface may not seem to be harmful to religious organizations, but in reality, it is. It is a policy implemented this year at Vanderbilt that prohibits campus groups from selecting members and leaders based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. Of these categories, it is religion which has stirred the most controversy. More than a dozen religious organizations have lost their membership as university-affiliated organizations for refusing to abide by the policy. Should religious organizations have to accept members who do not belong to their religion, and should they have to open up leadership to unbelievers? The answer is no: religious organizations should not have to comply with a policy that makes them accept unbelievers as members.
As Americans, few rights come close in importance to our rights to choose and practice our religion. Obviously, a public institution that has decided upon a course hostile to religion should warrant condemnation. What happens though, when it is a private institution like Vanderbilt that decides upon a course hostile to religion? The answer is that the private institution is legally entitled to set its own policies, even if such policies are anti-religious. However, the question becomes significantly murkier when you consider the case of a state giving significant amounts of money to the private institution. Don’t voters have a right to see that their money does not go toward an institution that has an anti-religious policy? Yes, they do, and in this case, the state of Tennessee has in fact given millions of dollars to Vanderbilt University.
Fraternities and sororities are understandably exempted from the policy as accepting a person of a different gender for such an organization would be ridiculous. It is likewise ridiculous for faith groups to be forced to accept unbelievers as members. Religious groups at Vanderbilt should be like religious groups elsewhere: able to exclude from membership and leadership those who do not belong to the faith. However, this does not just apply to Christians but applies to all religions and to the non-religious as well. For instance, secularist groups should be able to select only secularist members and leaders if they so desire. It should be the same for Christian groups, Jewish groups, Islamic groups, and so on and so forth.
Unlike categories such as race and gender, religion is dependent upon the individual’s choice. If a person chooses to subscribe to certain beliefs, then they can belong to a religious group. Obviously, the ability to choose one’s race or gender is not dependent on conscious choice-sex change operations aside. This fact that religion can be consciously chosen and is not something you are born with makes religion a more suitable qualifier for an organization.
A video has even been made by Christian organizations who oppose the new rule imposed by Vanderbilt. It is a nearly seven- minute video that features university students, alumni, and sponsors who oppose the policy. As noted before, the opposition to the policy has expanded to include some elected officials, some in Congress as well as some in the Tennessee legislature.
It is time that Vanderbilt stop enforcing its policy and do what common sense dictates: let only those who belong to a specific religion belong to that religion’s groups. It is time that religious organizations be accorded at least the respect given to fraternities and sororities on campus and be allowed to impose reasonable requirements for membership and leadership in their organizations.
Photo credit: mosesxan (Creative Commons)