For the past few months, Vanderbilt University has faced strong pushback from Christian student groups over its policy requiring all on-campus organizations to abide by the university’s non-discrimination statement, which includes sexual orientation protections. The groups claim that by being forced to allow gay students to participate and run for officer positions, they themselves are being discriminated against for their faith. The university has stood by its policy, arguing that because all students pay fees, all students should have equal access to campus resources.
This week, the issue escalated as the Tennessee legislature passed a bill threatening to cut state funding to any university that does not allow its religious student clubs to discriminate according to their beliefs. Though he does not agree with Vanderbilt’s policy, Gov. Bill Haslam (R) has committed to vetoing the bill — his first veto in office — because he considers it government overreach:
HASLAM: It is counter-intuitive to make campus organizations open their membership and leadership positions to anyone and everyone, even when potential members philosophically disagree with the core values and beliefs of the organization. Although I disagree with Vanderbilt’s policy, as someone who strongly believes in limited government, I think it is inappropriate for government to mandate the policies of a private institution.
Despite the veto, the debate will surely rage on. A nation-wide group known as the Christian Legal Society (which also has a Vanderbilt chapter) took a similar fight at a public college all the way to the Supreme Court a few years ago and lost. In Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, the Court found that “all-comers” policies were viewpoint neutral, and thus are no more unfair to Christian groups than any other student groups.
Despite the broad support they’ve received from the religious right, the Christian groups’ arguments generally lack merit. They allege that their organizations could somehow be infiltrated by antagonistic individuals attempting to take over the leadership, but not only has this never happened, but there’s also nothing keeping members from splintering off and forming a new group. They also argue that the exception that allows fraternities and sororities to discriminate based on sex is unfair, but of course this ignores the reality that Greek organizations are often intentionally single-sex because their members live together. Ultimately, these tactics represent a false victimization, an attempt by conservative groups to use campus resources to discriminate against other students. Thankfully, the state will not have the opportunity to compromise the university’s principles.