NASHVILLE – An Americans United for the Separation of Church and State official told Vanderbilt University Christians to "stop whining" about the institution's all-comers policy and hold their meetings in private homes like Christians in communist China.
During the 2012 National Religious Broadcasters Convention's public policy debate on Tuesday, AU Executive Director Barry W. Lynn defended Vanderbilt's right as a private institution to impose a campus-wide nondiscrimination policy that could potentially drive religious student organizations off campus.
Those who oppose the policy, he said, should "get over it" and "stop whining."
"I would suggest that people in this position – to use a phrase on a button in my dentist office that he always wears when he works, it says, 'stop whining.' I'd say stop whining here. Why not do what evangelicals do: go out into the world, out into the community [and] have your meetings, if you have to, off campus. Show your faith [and] meet with students not in a club room somewhere in the university, but in those home churches that kept Christianity alive during the darkest days of communist China."
China, though it allows Chinese Christians to worship in two state-approved churches, does not give its people the right of religious freedom. Last year, many Chinese Christians were arrested and detained for conducting religious services in unregistered home churches, according to ChinaAid, a support group for China's persecuted Christians.
Vanderbilt requires organizations on campus to comply with its all-comers policy, which requires groups to extend membership and leadership positions to all who show up at meetings. In other words, organizations cannot require that leaders share the group's beliefs, goals and values.
Lynn said he believes the "all-comers" policy is a great idea.
"If you have a Christian club, the truth is you will be able to have and you will be required to permit [students] of any religious background or no religious background to come to your club, even run for the presidency of your club," he told the NRB audience.
Many Christian clubs on Vanderbilt University's campus already feature nondiscrimination statements in its constitutions allowing people of all beliefs and faiths attend and participate in meetings and activities.
Carol Swain, a Vanderbilt political science and law professor and adviser to the campus' Christian Legal Society, was also part of the four-panelist debate Tuesday.
She said, "The Christian Legal Society and the [Christian] group I'm aware of never discriminate against anyone for membership. They've had an all-comers policy but they've had biblically grounded principles when it comes to leading the organizations."
CLS and other Vanderbilt Christian clubs require leaders be a professing Christian, able to conduct Bible studies and worship meetings.
Lynn argued that Christian groups must "get over" themselves and open up their leadership positions to all people regardless of their beliefs.
Giving the example of a logging proponent heading an environmental club, he said, "I say get over it. This is the kind of thing that people need to be able to deal with in the real world; [there is] no reason they can't deal with it the university setting."
Lynn also argued that private colleges and university such as Vanderbilt should not have to subsidize organizations with principles that they do not agree with. Colleges subsidize student groups by allowing them to freely use campus facilities for meetings and activities as well as providing programmatic funding.
"I think universities, including private universities in particular, … have an absolute right to determine what kind of environment they want on their college campus," he asserted.
The policy, however, is "creating a very chilling environment" for religious freedom, Swain contended.
She and national CLS Senior Counsel Kim Colby told The Christian Post earlier that the policy was pushing CLS and other Christian groups off campus.
Mark Potok, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center, was also a participant in the NRB debate. He insisted that Christian groups were not being forced off campus.
Lynn, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, too insisted that groups were not being forced out but suggested that groups not willing to conform to the university's policy should meet off campus.
The Tennessee university began promoting an all-comers policy after campus Christian fraternity Beta Upsilon Chi reportedly dismissed an openly gay member from his position. Immediately after the incident, the university placed four clubs, including CLS, on provisional status last spring.
Vanderbilt University defended the policy in a statement to CP, saying, "We appreciate the value of religious organizations for our students. A few of our religious organizations maintain that their beliefs prevent them from complying with Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy."
"We believe all members of a registered student organization should be eligible to compete for leadership positions, but it is up to each student organization to select its own leaders."
Students and groups affected by the policy may have no legal recourse because the institution is privately funded, according to Liberty Counsel Founder and Chairman Mathew Staver.
Staver said the Tennessee school "can essentially do anything that they want to" in this current circumstance.