By Rick Musacchio and Andy Telli
Catholic News Service
NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) — A proposal by Vanderbilt University to apply its nondiscrimination policy to the leadership of student religious organizations “will restrict freedom and diversity in student life by jeopardizing authentic religious expression,” Father John Sims Baker, the Catholic chaplain at Vanderbilt, wrote in a letter to the school’s chancellor.
Nashville Bishop David R. Choby also wrote Vanderbilt Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos asking that the university “not apply Vanderbilt’s laudatory nondiscrimination policy in this unfortunate manner.”
The Christian Legal Society sent a letter to Mark Dalton, the chair of the Vanderbilt’s board of trust, making the same point. The letter also was signed by Anthony R. Picarello, general counsel of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Vanderbilt’s board was meeting Nov. 10-12 and the student members of the Vanderbilt Catholic Community launched a nine-day rosary novena leading up to the meeting to bring the issue to the board’s attention, said Grace Burnworth, president of Vanderbilt Catholic, as the group is better known.
“We’re here to offer up our concerns to the Blessed Mother and ask her to take them to Our Lord for us so she can word them perfectly for us,” Burnworth said.
The dispute began after a Vanderbilt student complained to university officials that he was dismissed from a Christian fraternity because of his sexual orientation.
“As a result of the case, we reviewed the constitutions of all of the approximately 380 registered student groups on campus,” Beth Fortune, vice chancellor for public affairs at Vanderbilt, said in a written response to several questions from the Tennessee Register, Nashville’s diocesan newspaper. “Since that review, all but four groups, all religious, have come into compliance with the policy.”
The school’s nondiscrimination policy states the university does not discriminate on the basis of race, sex, religion, color, national or ethnic origin, age, disability, military service, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity or gender expression “in its administration of educational policies, programs or activities; admissions policies, scholarship and loan programs; athletic or other university-administered programs; or employment.”
The policy does not include an exception for religious beliefs, Fortune said.
The constitutions of registered student groups, which are reviewed each April, must comply with the university’s nondiscrimination policy “at the levels of membership and leadership,” Fortune said.
“We are not dictating what anyone must believe,” Fortune said, “but in order to be a registered student organization at Vanderbilt opportunities for membership and leadership must be accessible to all.”
“The university is proposing unilaterally to decide who is qualified to represent the Catholic faith on campus,” Father Baker wrote in his letter to Zeppos.
“According to the proposed interpretation of the nondiscrimination policy, the university maintains that any student is qualified to lead Vanderbilt Catholic regardless of religious profession. Religious profession is, however, a rational basis for determining leadership in a religious organization. It is not invidious discrimination.
“Vanderbilt Catholic cannot bend on this principle,” added Father Baker, who is a graduate of Vanderbilt Law School.
“It really is a big change,” Father Baker said in an interview with the Tennessee Register. “The administration is trying to say it isn’t a big deal, but it really is a big deal.”
As it is currently written, Vanderbilt Catholic’s constitution does not explicitly require that the organization’s leaders be Catholic, so it is in compliance with the university’s policy, Burnworth said. But if the university continues to apply the nondiscrimination policy to the leadership of student religious groups, Vanderbilt Catholic will change its constitution to state what the organization has historically done, namely require its leaders to be Catholic, she added.
Vanderbilt Catholic’s constitution was submitted to the university for review before the current controversy, “and no one at Vanderbilt Catholic considered the implications of the leadership requirements,” Father Baker wrote to Zeppos. “It was too far from experience to imagine someone other than a practicing Catholic qualifying for a leadership role.”
Being a registered student organization allows the organization several benefits, including the use of the Vanderbilt name, funding from the Interfaith Council, space on the web server, and “most concerning to us is the ability to have Mass on campus,” Burnworth said.
Vanderbilt Catholic has Mass in Vanderbilt’s Benton Chapel every Sunday and on holy days of obligation, Burnworth said. The organization also sponsors daily Mass at the nearby Cathedral of the Incarnation.
According to university officials, the four student organizations found to be not in compliance with the discrimination policy are currently on provisional status, which allows them the same full access to the campus as they have had in the past, while the university continues to work with them on the issue.
“As you and the board of trustees meet this week,” Bishop Choby said in his letter to Zeppos, “I am hoping that you will reconsider this recently implemented and unfortunate position and leave as a working model and relationship the practice that has been in place for many years.”