Lawmakers Back Christian Students at Vanderbilt

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Tennessee lawmakers are now backing Christian student groups at Vanderbilt University.

On Monday, the Statehouse and Senate approved a bill that would rescind the school's controversial "all-comers policy."  It requires student clubs to allow anyone to run for a leadership position, regardless of their beliefs.

The bill counters that, saying "a religious student organization may determine that the organization's religious mission requires that only persons professing the faith of the group...qualify to serve as members or leaders."

A number of Christian groups on campus say it's critical that their leaders subscribe to a belief statement that supports their organization's mission.

Vanderbilt Catholic is one group whose student leaders decided not to apply for official status as a registered campus organization next year.

Father John Sims Baker said the decision was relatively straightforward for the students.

"We can't make an affirmation that that's how we operate," he explained. "It really just wouldn't be true. It would be lying to the university because we really believe that faith-based criteria are essential to carry out our mission."

Other student groups are waiting on the university to find out if their faith-based constitutions will be approved. But they're not holding their breath.

"We are not going to get invited back to campus," Ty McCleery, a leader with Graduate Christian Fellowship, said. "They are basically kicking us off."

"But in that I think that students will think 'they're kind of being rebellious' and maybe that will be attractive to them," McCleery continued. "If nothing else, it shows them that we really care about what we believe in and that, I think, is attractive to a lot of students."

The university maintains that its policy isn't about religious freedom but rather, non-discrimination. In a recent press release, university officials noted that 26 religious student groups have agreed to comply with the all-comers policy while a dozen other groups have said they cannot comply.

The statehouse drama now plays out in Gov. Bill Haslam's office where the bill awaits his approval.

But Haslam told reporters last week that while he doesn't support Vanderbilt's policy, he also doesn't think that lawmakers should get involved.

Lawmakers who oppose the bill say the state shouldn't dictate policy to private institutions like Vanderbilt.

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Heather Sells

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