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 CNS Story:

VANDERBILT-POLICY Feb-7-2012 (620 words) xxxn

Vanderbilt: No break for religious groups on nondiscrimination policy

By Theresa Laurence
Catholic News Service

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (CNS) -- Students at Vanderbilt University packed a town hall meeting on campus to protest a school nondiscrimination policy they say is being applied unfairly and is a threat to religious liberty.

The policy requires that membership as well as leadership positions in any student organizations registered with the university be open to all, which means religious organizations also must open their leadership positions to anyone, regardless of beliefs.

For more than two months, Vanderbilt Catholic, the campus ministry program, and other student religious organizations on campus were hoping the university would not apply the policy to their groups' leadership spots.

But university administrators were on hand at the Jan. 31 town hall meeting to reiterate that they would not back down from enforcing it.

The meeting followed a Jan. 20 letter from Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos that made Vanderbilt's position clear.

"The university does not seek to limit anyone's freedom to practice his or her religion. We do, however, require all Vanderbilt-registered student organizations to observe our nondiscrimination policy," Zeppos stated. "That means membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions."

Vanderbilt Catholic chaplain Father John Sims Baker rejects the claim that "all" Vanderbilt registered student organizations are bound by the nondiscrimination policy. "There are literally dozens of student organizations that are exempt. All fraternities and sororities are discriminatory in leadership and membership. They don't let just anyone join," he said. "The policy is unfairly applied to religious groups."

Despite protests from students, as well as from outside Christian legal counsels and Nashville Bishop David R. Choby, among others, Vanderbilt University decided not to make any exceptions for religious student organizations.

In November, Bishop Choby wrote to Chancellor Zeppos, asking the university to "not apply Vanderbilt's laudatory nondiscrimination policy in this unfortunate manner."

Vanderbilt Catholic has taken up the issue mostly in solidarity with fellow religious student organizations, including the Christian Legal Society and Fellowship of Christian Athletes, whose constitutions currently violate the nondiscrimination policy. These groups could lose their standing as registered student organizations if they do adapt to the nondiscrimination policy.

"We saw the way other religious groups were being treated and could not sit by in good conscience, because it's not fair," Father Baker told the Tennessee Register, Nashville's diocesan newspaper. "There are no other schools that have a policy like Vandy and enforce it like they do."

Vanderbilt Catholic recently submitted a new constitution to Vanderbilt administrators to seek annual re-approval for their organization. Religious student organizations in good standing are allowed use of the Vanderbilt name, funding from the Interfaith Council, space on the web server, and worship time in the on-campus Benton Chapel.

Vanderbilt Catholic's one-page constitution doesn't explicitly state that those running for leadership positions must be practicing Catholics, but "it makes our mission very clear," Father Baker said.

If Vanderbilt Catholic's constitution were not approved for some reason, Father Baker said, it would not spell the end for the thriving Catholic campus ministry program.

The organization's headquarters, the Frassati House, is located on the grounds of the Cathedral of the Incarnation and is owned by the Diocese of Nashville. Vanderbilt Catholic also would continue to have ready access to Mass at the cathedral.

Father Baker doesn't worry too much about Vanderbilt Catholic being hijacked by outsiders, but, he said, "there is a possibility for someone hostile to your mission to try and take over, to run for president, for a publicity stunt, and it could be very disruptive," he said.

But for now, Vanderbilt Catholic's mission and regular slate of activities is going ahead as scheduled.

"We're just going forward ... working on the salvation of souls," Father Baker said.

END


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