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NASHVILLE-At dusk on the first Sunday after Easter, a small procession led by 10 white-robed men filed slowly out of Vanderbilt University's Benton Chapel, the school's interfaith worship space. The leader held high a crucifix. Someone behind him rang bells. A heavy and bitter coil of incense smoke rolled over the rest of the column.
When the students, all members of Vanderbilt Catholic, walked past the library singing "The Chaplet of Divine Mercy," onlookers stopped talking on their cellphones. Students sipping coffee at an outdoor cafe looked up from their laptops, and everyone stared.
"Have mercy on us, and on the whole world," the singers intoned as they wound their way across campus. The chant rang out across grassy commons and reverberated through empty courtyards with a sense of urgency amid the students' battle with school officials over new rules governing campus religious organizations.
Vanderbilt Catholic is one of 13 Christian groups refusing to comply with the school's controversial new nondiscrimination policy, which requires that any student be allowed to serve in leadership, regardless of whether the student shares the group's beliefs.
The Catholic group says Vanderbilt's new requirement hinders its religious liberty. But two of the largest evangelical Protestant groups on campus-Reformed University Fellowship (RUF) and the Baptist Collegiate Ministry (BCM)-have decided to comply with the private school's new policy, saying they don't expect interference from administrators.
Disagreement over the policy has caused a divide between the Christian groups. Those who oppose the policy lobbied for the school to back down as the April 16 deadline to register for official recognition came and went-but the willingness of RUF and BCM to comply makes it much less likely that administrators will back down. "If we had all stood together, it would have been less likely that anyone would have had to leave campus," said Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt law professor and faculty adviser to the Christian Legal Society. RUF and BCM, she charged, "made a decision that was very self-interested and that does not advance the cause of Christ."
Swain's group was one of four cited last year for having a constitution that did not comply with the school's nondiscrimination policy. For months, Christian Legal Society (CLS), Graduate Christian Fellowship, Beta Upsilon Chi, and Fellowship of Christian Athletes stood alone in opposition to the school's demand they open their leadership positions to all students. But when administrators announced all religious groups would have to comply with the policy, others soon joined the protest.
At the end of March, leaders of Vanderbilt Catholic-the school's largest religious organization-announced they would sever ties with the university. On April 9, a coalition of 11 evangelical Protestant groups, calling themselves Vanderbilt Solidarity, issued a statement opposing the policy and reiterating their intention to move off campus next semester. The same week, a new media campaign organized by Americans United for Freedom began targeting the school's trustees with a petition, letter-writing campaign, and television commercials-all exhorting them to restore religious liberty at the Nashville, Tenn., campus.
But by then, RUF, the official student group of the Presbyterian Church in America, and BCM, which is affiliated with the Tennessee Baptist Convention, had already applied for official recognition under the new policy. Leaders of both groups say the policy will not stop them from doing what they've always done. "They're not kicking us off campus, and I can still preach the gospel regularly," said Stacey Croft, RUF chaplain. "Until I feel like my integrity, my conscience, and the gospel are compromised, I don't think we need to step off campus."
Bill Choate, who heads collegiate ministries for the Tennessee Baptist Convention, said Vanderbilt administrators likewise have not stopped his group's ministry from carrying out its mission: "They have not yet denied us that privilege. They may tomorrow, but they haven't stopped us from operating yet." Choate refused to say whether his group had affirmed the nondiscrimination policy and therefore expected to have its constitution approved by school administrators. But he said the Baptist ministry intended to continue operating on campus as it has since the 1920s.
School administrators started reviewing the constitutions of all student groups after members of Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi removed one of their leaders over his views on homosexuality. Administrators put four groups, including the fraternity, on provisional status because their constitutions all required leaders to adhere to a statement of faith.
Although administrators previously approved the constitutions, they announced they would no longer allow religious groups an exemption to pick or evaluate leaders based on their beliefs. Faced with the prospect of being forced to open leadership positions to students who disagreed with the Christian groups' basic principles, members of the groups packed a town hall-style meeting in late January to protest the changes. Wearing white shirts to show their solidarity, the students urged administrators to reconsider.
But Vanderbilt chancellor Nicholas Zeppos refused to budge. And to make sure all groups comply, even those that don't have statement of faith requirements in their constitutions, administrators demanded all groups sign a document affirming the nondiscrimination policy.
That was the last straw for John Sims Baker, a Catholic priest and chaplain of Vanderbilt Catholic. Although the Catholic group's constitution did not violate the nondiscrimination policy, the group could not in good conscience agree in principle to allow anyone to serve in leadership, Baker said. In a letter to parents and supporters, Baker praised the group's student leaders for standing up to school administrators: "Their resolve makes our situation a success story rather than a failure," he said. "It has become quite clear to the students that we either stand for something or fall for anything. We choose to stand for Jesus Christ, and we expect that our leadership do the same."
But RUF's Croft doesn't think Vanderbilt has gone as far in restricting religious liberty as Baker and leaders of other Christian groups claim. Although he thinks the policy is unhelpful and bad for the school, he doesn't believe the rule allows the university to tell groups who can lead them or water down the Christian message. "I just don't think they're there yet," Croft said of school administrators. "I don't think we have to fear that. Let that come when it does. Let's not jump the gun and say they've already done that. Let's continue as we are and take that to the university. If we need to leave, we will."
Croft said he understood why the policy's opponents described it as a slippery slope of secular control over religious groups. But if it is, the school is at the top of the slope, not the bottom, he said.
Rod Mays, who coordinates all RUF chapters, said the Vanderbilt group is taking the same approach he would direct other chapters to take. RUF is known for working with campus administrators in official channels, and wants to be a sanctioned organization, he said: "It's just a different philosophy of ministry. It has nothing to do with compromising the gospel. We're completely free to do what we want to do."
RUF does not feel as threatened by the nondiscrimination policy because it doesn't interpret leadership the way some other groups do, Mays said. Each RUF chapter is led by an ordained PCA minister who is ultimately responsible for leading students. That job does not fall to other students, like it does at some ministries. And the campus minister's authority gives the group some freedom in the students it allows to serve in different capacities: "Obviously, RUF is not going to have a Muslim, a Hindu, an avowed fornicator or a homosexual teaching the book of James. But one of those people might bring cookies to a Super Bowl party. We want them to be exposed to Christians and the gospel."
School administrators have maintained their defense of the policy despite ongoing criticism in Nashville and around the country. In a prepared statement, vice chancellor for public affairs Beth Fortune said the school does "not believe our nondiscrimination policy to be incompatible with religious freedom. ... Vanderbilt's policy does not mandate whom student organizations should elect as leaders-it simply allows for anyone to be eligible for membership and to seek a leadership position. Student organizations do and will always have the right to elect the leaders of their choosing."
Swain, who has led the fight against the policy, thinks the momentum of opposition building among alumni and donors will force the school to reconsider. Vanderbilt is a private school, but its reliance on roughly half a billion dollars in federal aid and $24 million in state funds could open a door to legal action. State lawmakers already are poised to pass a law that would prevent state schools from following Vanderbilt's lead. They so far have stopped short of approving amendments that would make state aid contingent on compliance with the law or require Vanderbilt to apply its "all-comers" policy to fraternities and sororities as well as religious organizations.
As Vanderbilt Catholic's Eucharistic Procession-possibly its last-filed back in to Benton Chapel, the students took to their knees in the pews. Although university officials have told the group it can continue holding mass in the chapel next year, it may have to cancel the procession.
But no matter what happens in the fall, Baker encouraged the students to continue following Jesus as they walk across campus every day: "You honored Him publicly by showing Him the honor and adoration due Him."
On and off
Religious organizations that refused to sign the nondiscrimination policy at Vanderbilt, and already have or are likely to leave campus:
• Asian American Christian Fellowship
• Fellowship of Christian Athletes
• Medical Christian Fellowship
• Graduate Christian Fellowship
• Bridges International
• Lutheran Student Fellowship
• Every Nation Ministries
• Beta Upsilon Chi
• Christian Legal Society
• St. Thomas More Society
• Vanderbilt Catholic
Religious organizations that plan to remain on campus:
• Reformed University Fellowship
• Baptist Collegiate Ministry