For over 35 years, some public university officials have looked for opportunities to exclude religious groups from campus. At first, they claimed that the Establishment Clause prohibited religious activity on public educational property because of the “school prayer” decisions. But in 1981, the Supreme Court held that religious student groups had a free speech right to meet on campus for prayer and Bible study. In 1995, the Court ruled that religious student groups had a right to funding from student activity fee funding, if other student groups received funding.
Some university officials then adopted a new tack. All student groups were required to agree to abide by nondiscrimination policies, including prohibitions on religious discrimination. That would be an easy agreement, but only if nondiscrimination policies were interpreted in a common sense manner to allow religious groups to require their leaders to be religious.
But a handful of university officials began to misinterpret nondiscrimination policies to mean that religious groups could not require their leaders to agree with their religious beliefs. Nondiscrimination policies, intended to protect religious students, suddenly were being used to exclude them from campus. Evangelical Christian groups were most affected because of their common requirement that their leaders affirm statements of faith defining the groups’ core beliefs.
A particularly egregious example of this tortured logic was seen at Vanderbilt University this past year. In April, the Vanderbilt administration told a Christian student group that it could not require its leaders to have “a personal commitment to Jesus Christ.” Vanderbilt also told the Christian Legal Society that it could not expect its leaders to lead its Bible studies, prayer, and worship, because that indicated that CLS expected its leaders to have certain religious beliefs. As a result, 15 Christian groups left the Vanderbilt campus this spring.
Please pray for Justice Ginsburg who seems to support exclusion of religious student groups from campus. Please pray for the students and their faculty advisors at Vanderbilt University. Pray that university administrators will change course and once again welcome true religious diversity and pluralism to the Vanderbilt campus.
This is the fifth in a series of posts from Kim Colby commemorating the Fortnight4Freedom