State Legislature Moves Against Vanderbilt’s “All-Comers” Policy for Student Groups

Last night, by comfortable margins, the Tennessee legislature passed a bill prohibiting Vanderbilt University’s “all-comers” policy for student groups. The policy, which requires that student groups open leadership positions to all Vanderbilt students, even students who disagree with the groups’ core beliefs, has sparked a dispute between the university and some student religious organizations, which argue that the policy effectively dilutes their religious identity. The bill initially banned all-comers policies only at state universities, but an amendment extended the bill’s  coverage to private institutions that receive more than $24 million in state subsidies — which just happens to be the amount Tennessee gives Vanderbilt. The bill does not actually cut off  funding, for the moment, but sponsors threaten to do so in future if Vanderbilt does not change its policy. The bill now goes to Governor Bill Haslam for signature.

A couple of terms ago, in CLS v. Martinez, the Supreme Court held that a similar all-comers policy at the University of California-Hastings was constitutional. As I’ve argued before, though, even if an all-comers policy is constitutional, it’s very misguided. The point of campus diversity is to allow the expression of various viewpoints. It’s hard to see how a group can express a viewpoint if it cannot choose leaders who share its beliefs.

“They Can Have a Statement of Faith, As Long As They Don’t Act on It.”

George Will has a good column this week on an ongoing controversy at Vanderbilt University. According to Will, Vanderbilt has placed the Christian Legal Society (CLS) on probation because CLS requires that its members adhere to specified religious beliefs, including the belief that homosexual conduct is sinful. This requirement violates the University’s nondiscrimination policy, which forbids a student organization from discriminating, among other reasons, on the basis of religious belief. Actually, that’s not quite right. Apparently, a student group may require in theory that members share the group’s beliefs; the group just cannot enforce the requirement. In the words of one Vanderbilt administrator, groups “can have a statement of faith and conduct of behavior, and this in itself is not discriminatory. But they would not be able to deny or remove any member based on their Code of Conduct. They can have a statement of faith as long as they don’t act on it.”

Judging from reports, Vanderbilt has adopted an all-comers policy of the sort the Court upheld two terms ago in CLS v. Martinez. Assuming Vanderbilt applies the policy in a neutral way, the policy seems constitutional under current law. But given Vanderbilt’s stated goal of promoting diversity on campus, the policy is very misguided. What’s the point of allowing students to form a religious organization – or an atheist organization, for that matter – but requiring the organization to open its membership to people who don’t share its beliefs? Does it make sense to require an environmentalist group to admit members who don’t endorse environmentalism, or an Orthodox Jewish group to admit members who refuse to keep kosher? The Vanderbilt policy, as Will points out, does not promote diversity on campus; it promotes conformity. Of course, Vanderbilt could argue that certain beliefs are unacceptable for its student groups to have, and that it is denying CLS recognition for that reason. That would be coherent; but it is not what Vanderbilt is arguing.  – MLM

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