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Catholic group will drop Vanderbilt affiliation

By Travis Loller

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, March 28 2012 1:29 p.m. MDT

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A Roman Catholic student group has voted to sever official ties with Vanderbilt University after a dispute over the school's nondiscrimination policy.

Vanderbilt recently reviewed all of its student groups for compliance with the policy after a gay student complained of being thrown out of a Christian fraternity.

Christian student leaders have been vocal in their opposition to the policy, saying their groups should not be forced to admit members, and possibly leaders, who do not share their beliefs.

On Monday, Vanderbilt Catholic became the first group to announce its intention not to re-register with the university as an official student group. Doing so would require student leaders to sign a statement saying they will comply with Vanderbilt's "all-comers" policy, which requires the groups to allow any interested students to join and run for office.

The news was first reported in The Tennessean.

Vanderbilt Catholic chaplain, the Rev. John Sims Baker, said student leaders recognize that it is unlikely a group of non-Catholics would try to take over their organization, but they could not in good conscience agree to a policy that could allow that to happen.

"The students' concern is not so much on a practical level, but really on a level of fundamental principles — what we hold ourselves out to be," Baker said.

The most important quality for members and leaders is Catholic faith and practice, he said. "Outside of that, there's not much reason for Vanderbilt Catholic to exist, other than to be a place of religious practice and belief."

Baker said the group is not yet sure what practical changes it will have to make. Leaders have meetings scheduled this week with university officials to discuss whether they can continue to hold mass at the university's Benton Chapel.

"We probably will have to change our name," Baker said.

Regardless, the group plans to continue its ministry to Vanderbilt students.

"Our mission of proposing Jesus Christ is not dependent on official university status," said Vanderbilt Catholic President P.J. Jedlovec, a junior majoring in math and economics.

Jedlovec said the decision to split with the university was not made lightly. The discussion of what to do had been going on for some time, but board members realized they had to make a decision after Vanderbilt released a reworked version of its policy earlier this month, along with a question and answer sheet making it clear that religious groups could not apply religious criteria for membership or leadership.

The group's board met with Baker for 3½ hours to discuss and pray about the policy before deciding to disaffiliate.

"It's not something we would have chosen to do if we hadn't felt there was no other thing we could do in good conscience," he said.

Vanderbilt's all-comers policy does have some exceptions. Federal law requires schools to allow sex-segregated fraternities and sororities, for example.

According to a facts sheet on the policy, student groups also can apply performance-based criteria for membership. For example, a singing group can require members to audition and an honor society can require members to have a certain grade-point average. However, official student groups are not allowed to require that members to adhere to a particular faith or belief.

The university released a statement from Vice Chancellor for Public Affairs Beth Fortune stating the school is deeply disappointed in Vanderbilt Catholic's decision.

"We do not believe our nondiscrimination policy to be incompatible with religious freedom," it states. "Vanderbilt's policy does not mandate whom student organizations should elect as leaders — it simply allows for anyone to be eligible for membership and to seek a leadership position. Student organizations do and will always have the right to elect the leaders of their choosing."

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