Amy Choate-Nielsen: Religion on campus: Status of religious student groups is challenged by court ruling

Published: Friday, July 13 2012 5:00 a.m. MDT

FILE - In this May 3, 2011 file photo, the Supreme Court is seen in Washington. The Supreme Court said Monday it will hear arguments in March over President Barack Obama?s health care overhaul, setting up an election-year showdown over the White House's main domestic policy achievement. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Alex Brandon, Associated Press

The atmosphere in the crowded Vanderbilt University classroom was heated.

Three men in suits sat at the front of the room one Tuesday night in January taking the brunt of student complaints about a nondiscrimination policy for campus clubs. The policy wasn't new, the men said, but the school wanted to fix some "loopholes" that had been in effect for years that gave students control over who could run their clubs.

The school wanted any student to be able to lead or be a part of any campus club. The problem is, many religious clubs on campus adhere to strict moral codes and their leaders are required to promise to live by the same rules, such as no sex before marriage (and then only between a man and a woman). The idea that they could no longer bar atheists or people with conflicting values from leading their religious clubs appalled most of the students in the room.

One of the men, Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCarty, tried to explain his way of thinking about the policy's implications:

"I'm Catholic," he said to the crowd. "What if my faith beliefs guided all the decisions I make from day to day?"

An awkward silence followed, then loud applause and shouts of "they should" erupted. McCarty responded by hollering, "No they shouldn't! No they shouldn't!" over the din. Dozens of students later walked out in protest.

Since that meeting, more than a dozen on-campus religious groups have refused to change their leadership requirements and are no longer officially recognized by the school. The scandal has prompted the Tennessee state Legislature to threaten to halt millions of dollars of state funding to the private university unless the clubs are reinstated.

Vanderbilt is just one example of a university that is rethinking its nondiscrimination policies following a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2010 that ruled that a University of California law school was justified in denying a Christian group recognition on campus because of an "all-comers" policy. Since then, a rash of universities have considered or adopted all-comers policies that have threatened the status of religious student organizations, like the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

The official status of the national Christian organization for college students has been challenged at 41 campuses since the ruling, according to InterVarsity's Website. The group was officially derecognized at the University of Buffalo in April.

As more universities consider all-comers policies, First Amendment experts say their fear is that future court cases could arise to push the issue out of a university setting and closer to the public arena. If that happens, they say, then the worst is yet to come.

The all-comers rule

On June 28, 2010, the Christian Legal Society suffered a blow when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a UC Hasting's College of Law policy that barred the group from forming on campus. At the time, members of the group and the Alliance Defense Fund, a watchdog for religious liberty that argued on the society's behalf, were disappointed by the ruling — but they also saw a silver lining.

"Today's ruling will have limited impact," Kim Colby, senior counsel at the CLS Center for Law and Religious Freedom, said after hearing the court's decision. "We are not aware of any other public university that has the exact same policy as Hastings."

The group took comfort in the fact that Hastings prevailed through an unusual "all-comers" policy that forbade registered student organizations from limiting their membership and leadership based on beliefs. Under the policy, atheists can run Bible-study classes, Republican students can be officers of the College Democrats and so on. But the 5-4 decision was still frustrating to the group, which argued that the school's policy took away the society's right to determine their own leadership.

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