Students 'Shine Light' Despite Vanderbilt Policy

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Vanderbilt University stands above many other schools in the south. The large, private school academically ranks among the Ivy Leagues.

But a groundbreaking interpretation of Vanderbilt's non-discrimination policy continues to send shockwaves across educational, religious, and legal circles.

"Here you have a top 25 university in the U.S. - one that's located in the middle of the Bible Belt, that is essentially declaring war on its conservative and Orthodox Christian community on campus," David French, with the American Center for Law and Justice, said.

All or Nothing?

School leaders call it the "all comers policy." The rule mandates that official student organizations must allow anyone a chance at membership or a leadership position.

But roughly a dozen Christian groups at Vanderbilt say they need to use faith criteria to vet their student leaders.

"Most religious clubs are that way. We want everyone to come. We want them to be introduced and exposed to Christianity and the life of Jesus Christ," explained Del Wright, vice president of Field Ministry with the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

"But to say that your leaders don't have to subscribe to that belief system -- what are you left with?" he added.

Vanderbilt says the policy is intended to encourage freedom of belief and equal opportunity for all. In fact, not all faith groups oppose the policy. A number of groups have re-registered for next year.

"I don't see really an inherent threat in that, at least, not to the level that others have seen that," Methodist chaplain Mark Forrester said of the policy. Forrester heads the ecumenical Wesley Canterbury Fellowship on campus.

"I understand there are other groups who have a very different sort of doctrinal parameters that they have to work inside of," Forrester continued. "But for us, at least, I don't believe it would compromise in the long run the integrity of our witness or what we as a group really believe."

Forrester added that he would even welcome a student leader with serious faith questions.

"The way I like to advance our mission here I would say, 'Fine by me. Bring them on,'" he said. "Because I don't mind having a rigorous conversation with my students."

Coexisting Principles?

Twenty-six other religious groups have also agreed to comply with the policy. That means they will receive perks as official campus organizations, as well as the administration's public praise.

No one from the administration would talk on-camera with CBN News. But Vanderbilt Provost Richard McCarty is quoted in an April 23 university website post saying, "It is reassuring that many of our current religious organizations understand that our non-discrimination policy poses no threat to their religious freedom."

"All along, we have stressed that the policy is about rejecting discrimination and not about restricting religious freedom," McCarty said. "We firmly believe the two principles can coexist on the Vanderbilt campus and are gratified that many of our religious student organizations agree."

Roughly a dozen Christian groups on campus disagree. Some are still in process with Vanderbilt over their faith-based constitutions.

Others, like Vanderbilt's Baptist Collegiate Ministry and Vanderbilt Catholic, have decided they'll go.

"They really are dedicated to getting rid of discrimination on campus, but unfortunately they've taken that way too far," Vanderbilt Catholic president P.J. Jedlovec said. "In trying to combat any possible discrimination they're actually discriminating against us."

Being Shut Out

One of the biggest setbacks for the groups is being shut out of the campus conversation. Without being recognized as an official university organization, they can't participate in school-sponsored activities and events.

"We don't just want to minister to individual students. We want to be a presence at the university and just have a seat at the table of ideas and we're losing that," explained Tish Harrison Warren, a staff worker with InterVarsity's Graduate Christian Fellowship.

Vanderbilt Catholic students are now trying to decide what to call themselves next year. Other unofficial campus groups are also weighing options of renting space for weekly meetings.

Many believe missing the university-sponsored student organization recruitment fair in the fall will dramatically affect their outreach.

"A college student in his college life typically gets involved in the first six weeks with the groups, the organizations and with the people that he's going to be with for the next four years of his life," David Henderson, a team leader for Vanderbilt Cru, explained.

A Growing Trend

The situation at Vanderbilt caps a growing trend nationally. For years now, French has followed universities that restrict student faith groups.

"This conflict at Vanderbilt isn't new," he said. "What's new is the intensity of the conflict here at Vanderbilt and the intensity of the Christian student response to it."

Most groups involved in the ordeal believe the fight is far from over. State and federal lawmakers may still take action, given the millions of dollars that Vanderbilt receives in government funding.

There's also the possibility of other private schools setting similar policies.

In the midst of this storm, there is some good news. Vanderbilt's non-compliant ministries say they're seeing unexpected growth in students' lives.

"Our students have actually been more prayer focused and more evangelistic than I ever think I've seen them be through this process," Henderson added.

"If you want to share your faith, the opportunity is more open here than it was a year or two ago just because people are curious (asking) 'What's the big to-do here'?" explained Vanderbilt Cru advisor Gary Scudder.

Shining the Light

There's also a newfound unity among campus groups committed to the gospel. This year they've all come together for worship and prayer for the first time.

"There's a revival feeling going on on this campus right now," Fellowship of Christian Athletes president Andrew Harris said.

"I have seen a movement happen on campus that we wanted but were not anticipating," Ty McCleery, a graduate student active in InterVarsity's Graduate Christian Fellowship, said. "And it's been absolutely fascinating to see how the spirit has really moved on this campus."

For next year, the ministries plan to find more creative ways to reach students and say they'll remain as committed as ever to their mission.

"We don't believe that it's a wise policy long-term," Henderson said. "...But at the same time we're going to continue to be who we are."

"Whether we're here as a recognized entity [or not]," he continued, "We want to be here, and remain deeply committed to shining the light of Christ here at Vanderbilt and around the world."

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

CBN News Reporter

Heather Sells enjoys reporting on a variety of issues for CBN News. Some of her recent stories have focused on religious liberties, technology, AIDS, overseas missions, domestic trafficking, and politics.  Follow Heather on Twitter @SellsHeather and "like" her at Facebook.com/HeatherSellsCBNNews.