While some consider Vanderbilt University's new all-comers policy to be an assault on religious freedom, one lawyer for the American Center for Law and Justice argues that the university's Christian students have become more unified as a result of increased campus hostility.
In early 2012, the private university, located in Nashville, Tenn., implemented an all-comers policy for its student-run organizations. The policy prohibits campus groups from selecting members and leaders based on race, gender, sexual orientation or religion.
David French, senior council of the ACLJ, told The Christian Post that "in a very discouraging incident, this Vanderbilt attack, it's been a bright spot to see how the Christian students have responded."
"At any given moment, there have been hundreds of Christian students protesting this policy, very politely, very respectfully, at all times maintaining and enhancing their Gospel witness on campus, but doing so firmly and trying to convince the University to change course," French told CP.
Vanderbilt University's new policy excludes members of Greek life, still allowing them to be selective in their membership and leadership processes.
"Vanderbilt became increasingly aggressive [and] hostile towards Christian groups on campus, and really made it very clear that they were going out of their way, despite public denial to the contrary, they were going out of their way to single out Christian expression and to target Christian clubs for expulsion from campus effectively," French said.
Christian students on campus rallied against this new policy, arguing that it holds a double standard for the university's Greek life and also infringes upon students' religious freedom.
Christians argued that the new policy violated the central tenets of their faith, as being able to elect faith-filled leaders is integral to the survival of a religious group.
Eleven Christian groups protesting the policy formed the group Vanderbilt Solidarity. To promote their cause, they created a seven-minute video that was shared with faculty and students, as well as issued statements and attended town hall meetings.
"It really brought campus ministries together. They realized that while they certainly have different philosophies in ministry, subtle differences in theology, you name it, that this really was an attack on their presence on campus, collectively," French said.
"Not only did it bring them together to oppose this policy, but I think it really ended up forging a lot of new friendships and a lot of unity. Not just among the students but also among various campus ministers."
According to French, protests against the all-comers policy resulted in "the largest Christian student opposition on any university campus in the country, with 500 to 600 Christian students attending the university's town hall meeting to discuss the new policy."
Several Tennessee lawmakers created a bill that would have indirectly changed the all-comers policy by forcing Vanderbilt to choose between exempting its religious organizations from the all-comers policy, or expanding the all-comers policy to all student organizations, including sororities and fraternities.
Gov. Bill Haslam vetoed the bill, entitled House Bill 2576, arguing that although he did not agree with the all-comers policy, he did not see it fit for the government to regulate the workings of a private institution.
French contends that Vanderbilt University, which has historically been known for its open-minded respect toward religious expression, is now at a crossroads.
"Essentially it's got to decide if it's going to be the school that it has been in the past, which is a top 25 American University that accepts a broad range of viewpoints, or is it going to become a niche player in American higher education," the attorney said.
"It will have to decide if it wants to be known as a radical institution that imposes double standards for the sake of eliminating a particular voice from campus. It appears, at the moment, to want to be that kind of radical institution, which is entirely inconsistent with its history, inconsistent with the wishes of its alumni, and inconsistent with the public trust that of the hundreds of millions of dollars in state, local, and federal funding they get every year," he added.
Several campus organizations that chose to keep religious requirements in their individual charters were not given university recognition, and therefore will not enjoy the perks of using the university name, campus locations, or university sponsorship in the upcoming school year.
The Vanderbilt administration has continued to stand its ground regarding the new policy, arguing that it was implemented due to a 2010 incident in which a student's membership in a student organization depended on his sexuality.
"All along, we have stressed that the policy is about rejecting discrimination and not about restricting religious freedom. We firmly believe the two principles can coexist on the Vanderbilt campus, and are gratified that many of our religious student organizations agree," Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Richard McCartney previously said in a statement.