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Vanderbilt squeeze

Christian ministries plan their futures under university's new policy against religious groups

Vanderbilt squeeze

(Photo by Randi Anglin/Genesis)

NASHVILLE, Tenn.-Twenty graduate students sat in Tish Warren's living room in May 2011. Finished with final exams, they had gathered, bleary-eyed, for the annual Graduate Christian Fellowship (GCF) end-of-year party. Normally, they spent the gathering reminiscing about the previous semester and listening to new graduates talk about their future plans. But as Warren, 33, cleaned up after dinner and listened to the conversation from the other room, she detected worry rather than relief.

A week earlier, an email from Vanderbilt University's Office of Religious Life had arrived in Warren's inbox. She expected the message to contain the annual acknowledgement that GCF, which is affiliated with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, was welcome to operate on campus again in the fall. But the email announced that GCF was now on provisional status because GCF's constitution, which requires student leaders to sign a statement of faith, violated Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy.

Warren knew that GCF hadn't made any changes to its constitution or application in more than 10 years. She hadn't received any notice that the school had changed policies. This must be a mistake, she thought. After all, what did the school plan to do, kick all the orthodox Christian groups off campus? The idea seemed absurd. (A Methodist bishop founded Vanderbilt in 1873.) She told the graduate students at the end-of-the-year party that she would have the misunderstanding cleared up by the start of the fall semester.

But almost a year later, Warren slumped in her chair at a crowded coffee shop on the edge of campus. She slowly spun her cup around in its saucer, dissolving the frothy design in the top of her latte as she explained the previous year's struggle.

It had started when a member of Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi accused the group of forcing him out of leadership because he is gay. The student's complaint prompted administrators to reconsider whether religious groups should be able to restrict membership or leadership based on faith. Administrators decided that requiring students to share certain beliefs in order to join a group amounted to discrimination. When Christian groups protested, administrators compared them to racists who opposed desegregation in the 1960s.

Through many meetings Warren was patient, but finally she asked, "Do you really think that if I want our Bible study leaders to affirm the resurrection of Jesus, that's the same as saying that I don't want black people in my group? Do you really think that's the same thing?" Their response-creedal discrimination is still discrimination-ended the discussion.

Three months later, on Jan. 20, Vanderbilt administrators publicly announced the school's nondiscrimination policy. They described it as an "all-comers" policy, requiring all groups to be open to all students. They demanded that four Christian groups-GCF, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Christian Legal Society, and Beta Upsilon Chi-remove clauses in their constitutions requiring leaders to sign statements of faith. Student groups would also have to sign an affirmation of the nondiscrimination policy in order to retain official status.

By May, 14 Christian groups announced they could not abide by the policy and would operate as unofficial organizations for the 2012-13 school year.

Warren sighed heavily as she contemplated Vanderbilt's future: "If what we're calling pluralism is really a post-Christian, militant relativism, then what does it mean for a Christian to be a redemptive force in culture? If our ideology isn't welcomed as another idea at the table, do we need to be a little more Amish, a little more separate?"

At another coffee shop on the other side of campus, three members of the Christian Legal Society (CLS) squeezed around a table, talking about their plans for next year. Justin Gunter and Beth Roper, both rotating off the group's leadership team, looked tired after a year-long fight with administrators. In addition to his role as CLS president, Gunter served as spokesman for the coalition of Christian groups opposing the school's new policy. Although they weren't happy with the outcome, they were glad the fight was over, at least for now.

Incoming CLS president Parker Hancock said he was not giving up on holding events on campus, despite the group's renegade status. Professors have offered to use their status to help CLS reserve campus space for events. He planned to strengthen relations with Nashville churches and use Facebook and Twitter instead of weekly law school emails to publicize events: "I think we'll probably, ultimately be OK. ... It's just a matter of what does that look like? To what extent is this going to be a combination of restriction versus renewal?"

Most of the Christian groups "moving off campus" aren't really going anywhere. Ministry for many of them won't look much different this year than it did last year. Without official recognition, the groups can't apply for student fee funding, reserve school facilities for meetings, advertise events on the school's website, or participate in the student organization fair at the beginning of the school year.

But only a few groups held meetings in classrooms and lecture halls. Vanderbilt Catholic and Baptist Collegiate Ministries even own buildings on campus, giving them a regular meeting place. The school said it doesn't intend to keep groups from gathering in public places like the student center for Bible study or prayer meetings. The groups seem confident they can share information about their ministry the old-fashioned way-word of mouth.

One group, Reformed University Fellowship (RUF), chose to affirm the nondiscrimination policy and retain its official status. Chaplain Stacy Croft, an ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church in America, said the policy won't hinder him from preaching the gospel. RUF doesn't rely as heavily on student leaders and Croft has a hand in choosing those who lead Bible studies and small group meetings.

Some Christian leaders said the controversy had forced formerly apathetic or marginal members to become bolder about declaring their beliefs. Tish Warren said before Vanderbilt accused them of discrimination, many Christians on campus didn't think much about doctrine. Suddenly, the Nicene Creed was relevant on a college campus.

Last spring, 90 students attended a GCF-hosted panel on the role of creeds in Christian belief. Listening to them talk about creedal orthodoxy filled Warren with hope for Vanderbilt Christians: "Christians over the years have literally died for the notion of creedal orthodoxy. ... Christianity isn't just a void that we can pour whatever cultural hopes and dreams into, but there's actually a structure to our faith that we hold to, regardless of the trends of whatever is popular culturally, or not."

Leigh Jones

Leigh Jones

Leigh lives in Houston with her husband and daughter. She is the news editor for The World and Everything in It and reports on education for WORLD Digital.