In the fall of 2010, Vanderbilt University began investigating the constitutions of every religious organization on its Nashville, Tenn., campus after a discrimination complaint was filed against a Christian fraternity. During the investigation, the university changed the student organization handbook to remove a section protecting religious association. The university eliminated a clause that read, "In affirming its commitment to this principle [of non-discrimination], the University does not limit freedom of religious association and does not require adherence to this principle by government agencies or external organizations that associate with but are not controlled by the University."
In a letter to Vanderbilt students and faculty on Jan. 20, Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos insisted that 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. That means membership in registered student organizations is open to everyone and that everyone, if desired, has the opportunity to seek leadership positions."
Contrary to the university's stated goal of inclusion and tolerance, the change in policy jeopardizes the operational freedom of all religious organizations on campus. Patricia Helland, an associate dean who oversees religious life at Vanderbilt, defended the change in an interview saying "organizations can have core beliefs, but that organizations can't require their members or leaders to abide by or adhere to those core beliefs."
It is this final quote which brings into sharp relief the insanity of "non-discrimination" in its present form. Essentially, the position of the university is that a person may believe whatever they want and may even create a society which shares those core beliefs, but that society cannot refuse membership to anyone simply because that person does not share the core beliefs which constitute the very identity of that society. It ultimately reduces all societies, religious or otherwise, to totally amorphous and pointless entities. The article points out that a Jew could not be barred from leadership in a Muslim society, nor a Christian from a Jewish society, but it extends to even more ridiculous examples than that. The next Paul Ryan couldn't be barred from membership or leadership in a society for Democrats, the next New Gingrich from a society on marital fidelity. It's nonsense.
If students are to flourish in a learning environment that values diversity, community and debate, college administrators must return to the nationwide practice of allowing an exemption in their religious nondiscrimination policy for religious organizations – organizations whose very reason for existence is to promote a particular religion. Policies like Vanderbilt's irrationally discriminate against such groups, and fail to fulfill universities' duty to protect students' rights to associate and operate under their constitutionally-protected beliefs.
The casual observer is left to wonder why a Jew would want to be head of a Muslim organization, a Republican the head of a Democrat organization, or a homosexual the head of an organization whose founding principles are heteronormative (and it is this last one that is likely the hidden impetus behind all the controversy). But that insignificant bit of pragmatism doesn't seem to be the point for either party. What this ultimately boils down to is one group of activists with a self-defeating vision of liberalism that will tolerate anything but intolerance squaring off against another group of activists who firmly believe that their right to restrict access trumps another's right to access. Both views seem repugnant on the surface, but at least there is common sense working (de facto) in favor of the latter. If core beliefs do not define the bounds of membership in a voluntary organization, what should? Consider Justice Alito in his concurring opinion on Hosanna-Tabor: "Religious groups are the archetype of associations formed for expressive purposes, and their fundamental rights surely include the freedom to choose who is qualified to serve as a voice for their faith."