Vandy Wants Its Cake And Wants To Eat It, Too

Vanderbilt University, in saying that it has an “all comer’s” policy under which it can prohibit Christian student organizations if they require their members and leaders to adhere to their core beliefs, has asserted that a U.S. Supreme Court decision approved of such a policy. But the proposition that the Supreme Court’s decision actually supports might well come back to haunt the university.

Last Wednesday, the state Senate Education Committee heard the lobbyist for the organization representing private colleges and universities defend Vanderbilt’s right, and the right of all private colleges, to decide what student organizations they did and did not want to have on their campuses. Vanderbilt, in case you missed the news for the last several months, has decided that it no longer wants Christian organizations on its campus if those organizations believe that sex is to be between a man and a woman in the context of marriage.

The lobbyist’s defense was offered in the context of an amendment offered to a bill (Senate Bill 3597) that would prohibit our public colleges and universities from discriminating against religious student organizations. The amendment would have prohibited lottery scholarship funds from going to any university, even private ones, that discriminate against religious student organizations. Those private universities would still have the right to discriminate so long as they were willing to forego these public funds. But this choice was not acceptable. (Funny, huh, that Vanderbilt, which is pro-choice on abortion, wasn’t for choice in this instance?)

The Committee defeated the amendment because, rightly understood, the First Amendment protects the rights of private individuals and organizations to freedom of speech and association. But in actuality, Vanderbilt had no right to object to the amendment and for it to do so is the height of hypocrisy.

Vanderbilt has asserted that the United States Supreme Court’s decision in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez upheld as constitutional an “all comers” policy applied by a state system law school as a condition of allowing a religious student group on campus so long as the state-supported school applied the policy to all student organizations. An “all comers” policy is what Vanderbilt says it has, meaning that no student group can prohibit any person from being a member or officer of their group. Sounds nice, but it means, for example, that a student Democrat can be a member and try to serve as a leader of the College Republicans. Anyway, while the Supreme Court’s decision did not involve an “all comer’s” policy at a private institution, Vanderbilt has said it’s trying to emulate what the Supreme Court has said is okay.

But the Martinez case actually supports the proposition that the government can tell a private organization what speech and associations it must allow. Think about it. The Court said that a government institution, the state law school, could tell a private organization, the Christian Legal Society, what the private organization can and cannot believe as a condition of government approval and sanction.

Vanderbilt wants its cake and wants to eat it, too. It says it wants to do what the college in Martinez did while ignoring the fact that Martinez actually said it was okay for the government to tell a private organization, the Christian Legal Society, what it could and could not believe.

So, Vanderbilt, please don’t complain if the state legislature decides to tell you that you can’t discriminate against Christian student organizations. The legislature has every right to tell you what you can and cannot believe under the Martinez case you seem to love.

Of course, Vandy could decide that it’s best not to go down the road Martinez paved and extend to these private Christian organizations the same liberty that it seeks, namely, the freedom to define what beliefs religious groups can require for membership and leadership.

But that would require being consistent in what one believes and, for liberal academicians who rule Vanderbilt, being consistent in one’s beliefs is not a quality to be appreciated. It frustrates the one quality that it does appreciate: the end justifies the means if it advances a liberal agenda.

(I would like to acknowledge Professor Michael Stokes Paulsen of the University of St. Thomas for his comprehensive analysis of the many ironies the Vanderbilt policy presents. Any mis-application of some of those thoughts to the Senate’s debate, however, are entirely of my own doing.)