Congressman Randy Forbes, Founder and Co-Chairman of the Congressional Prayer Caucus, along with Congressman Marsha Blackburn and Congressman Diane Black, led 36 Members of Congress in sending a second letter to Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos of Vanderbilt University, urging him to ensure that the school's nondiscrimination policy is not being interpreted in a manner that discriminates against religious student groups.
Last year, several religious student organizations at Vanderbilt University, including the Christian Legal Society and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, were placed on "provisional status" for requiring their student leaders to share the groups' religious beliefs. If Vanderbilt does not change its nondiscrimination policy to protect the rights of religious student groups, at least 11 groups will be forced to leave campus and drop their affiliation with the university.
"I fully respect a private institution's right to set its own policies. However, I am deeply concerned that Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy unfairly targets religious student groups in a hostile manner that is forcing them to seek refuge off campus and immediately drop any affiliation they once enjoyed with the university," Blackburn said. "It's my hope that Chancellor Zeppos and Vanderbilt's Board will re-construct their nondiscrimination policy to reflect the freedom that religious student groups have been provided under federal law."
"Freedom of religion is fundamental to our Republic. Vanderbilt's "all comers" policy infringes on that right. By exempting Greek organizations but refusing to exempt religious organizations it appears that religious discrimination is the aim of this policy," said Black. "As a private institution Vanderbilt is not exempt from the Constitution and I encourage them to rethink this misguided policy."
Congressman Forbes added: "Vanderbilt's policy defies common sense. Religious student groups form around specific beliefs, and their leaders obviously lead the groups' activities. As such, religious groups must be allowed to select leaders that share their core religious beliefs in order to carry out their most basic functions. It is not discrimination; it is common sense."
Members of the Congressional Prayer Caucus sent the first letter to Vanderbilt University in October 2011 expressing their concerns with this troubling policy. The current form of the policy allows an exemption for Greek organizations, but does not allow one for religious student organizations. This policy not only discriminates against religious student groups whose rights are protected by the Constitution, but also leaves the appearance that it is the religious groups that are specifically targeted.
Gov. Bill Haslam Vetos Sentate Bill to Protect Religious Freedom
Earlier this month Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced he plans to veto a bill passed in early May by legislators who want to protect religious freedom at universities statewide.
Under SB 3597, passed by the state Senate on a 19-12 vote, "a religious student organization may determine that the organization's religious mission requires that only persons professing the faith of the group and comporting themselves in conformity with it qualify to serve as members or leaders. No state higher education institution may deny recognition or any privilege or benefit to a student organization or group that exercises such rights." The General Assembly passed it with a 61-22 vote hours later.