NASHVILLE, Tenn.—A Catholic student group says it will leave the Vanderbilt University campus at the end of the year over a controversial school policy which bars the group from requiring its leaders to be Catholic.
“The discriminatory nondiscrimination policy at Vanderbilt University has forced our hand,” Vanderbilt Catholic chaplain Father John Sims Baker said in a March 26 statement.
“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?” he asked. “How can we say it is not important that a Catholic lead a Catholic organization?”
The university policy prevents student groups from requiring their leaders to hold specific religious beliefs, The Tennessean reported. It has an “all-comers” policy, which means that groups must be open to all students and must allow every student member to run for office.
Leaders of Vanderbilt Catholic say the rule makes no sense. They will not comply and instead will become an independent off-campus ministry.
“We are a faith-based organization,” five leaders from the group’s student board said in a March 25 letter, arguing that affirming the policy would be “to lie” to the university.
“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.”
Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs at Vanderbilt, said in response that school officials “regret, but respect, their decision.”
Fortune said the university believes the “vast majority” of its more than 400 registered student groups will comply with the policy “easily.”
Vanderbilt Catholic is one of the largest student religious groups at the university. It allows non-Catholics to be members, though not leaders.
“It has become quite clear to the Vanderbilt Catholic students that we either stand for something or fall for anything,” Father Baker said. “We choose to stand for Jesus Christ, and we expect that our leadership do the same.”
He pledged that the organization will “make a greater effort to reach out to all Vanderbilt students and all college students in Nashville.”
Registered campus student organizations receive many benefits. They may use the Vanderbilt University name and may use university meeting rooms and facilities for free or reduced rates. They also receive free organizational consulting and training from administrators, the university’s website reports.
They are eligible to apply for funding from various campus sources. Registered organizations have access to free publicity in publications and may use campus bulletin boards and kiosks to promote organizational activities.
The Christian Legal Society and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes have also opposed the university’s policy.
Trish Harrison, campus minister for the Graduate Christian Fellowship, said her group can’t sign the policy “in good conscience,” The Tennessean reports.
The group’s leadership has not decided whether or not to try to register without signing the policy.
The Vanderbilt Baptist Collegiate Fellowship, affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, will apply for registered status, as it allows anyone to be a member or apply for a leadership position.
Twenty-three members of Congress signed an Oct. 6 letter in opposition to the policy, saying it is “common sense” for a student group to select leaders that best represent its mission.
Vanderbilt University re-examined adherence to its policy after a November 2010 incident in which the Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi asked an openly homosexual member to resign. The member filed a discrimination complaint against the group, prompting the university to investigate.