By Jack Minor
A long-fought battle at Hastings College in California ended up with the Supreme Court allowing enforcement of a requirement that campus organizations let all comers be members – and even run for office – no matter what they believe.
The case was brought by a Christian organization whose members protested that it could allow Muslims or atheists to have an influence over the Christian group’s activities. The Supreme Court agreed.
Now a similar rule is being implemented on the campus of Vanderbilt University. But this time a Christian professor is pointing out that under the same rule, Christians would be allowed to join an organization of atheists or Muslims and exert influence.
“If this policy is allowed to stand, it will be difficult for any group to be able to move forward, but there will be grand opportunities for aggressive evangelism,” said Carol Swain, a professor of political law at Vanderbilt.
“The university has unwittingly opened the door for Christians to be creative with the rules.”
Swain is also a nationally recognized political scientist and author as well as a member of the James Madison Society at Princeton University, where she was a tenured professor of politics and public policy in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Swain said that the university has put itself in an awkward position. If officials say that Christians cannot join an LGBT or Muslim group they will be in violation of their own policy. But allowing Christians to join these groups means they can effect change in their agendas.
The Supreme Court upheld this view in the Hastings case. In the 5-4 ruling, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated on the key elements in the case that Hastings’ all-comers policy applied equally to all student groups and would not even prohibit Republicans from joining and becoming leaders in a Democratic Party group.
One Vanderbilt official admitted to being aware of the possibility but said if such a “hostile takeover” happens, “We have other ways to deal with it.”
Vanderbilt said it started looking into the new policy after a “gay” student was dismissed from an on-campus Christian fraternity.
A meeting about Vanderbilt’s policy:
At a meeting to discuss the new requirements, administrators tried to say the university’s non-discrimination policy has not changed, but members of various Christian groups said it actually is a radical departure from the previous anti-discrimination rules.
Officials attempted to sidestep concerns that the policy would force Christian groups to permit unbelievers to lead their groups. Provost Richard McCarty said Christian groups would not be forced to elect unbelievers, but they would be required to permit them to become members and run for leadership positions.
Several of the groups have national requirements and have said that the new requirements would force them to leave campus. InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, for example, requires leaders to affirm the organization’s statement of faith and trust Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. Under the all-comers rule, ICF would either have to change its requirements or leave the campus.
Joseph Williams, president of the student body in 2009 said, “I would want a group to elect their officers based on tenets of belief. What else would a faith-based organization be able to elect their officers off of?”
One of the major concerns expressed by students is that the administration has refused to produce any written documentation on how the policy is to be interpreted. This has created confusion as the various groups have been given conflicting information on what is acceptable under the new guidelines.
According to Justin Gunther, president of Christian Legal Society at Vanderbilt, a member of the administration said in public that if members of a Christian group were to use religious motivation as a basis for not voting for an officer, it would be in violation of the university’s policy.
The statement contradicted statements made that evening by McCarty who said members could use any criteria they wanted when voting, as long as everyone was given an opportunity to run for the position.
Gunther and others were calling for Vanderbilt to release a written document explaining the policy clearly.
“We have been asking the university repeatedly to publish in a written form exactly what the scope of this policy so we can be sure this is where the policy stops,” Gunther said. “We’ve been going through this for nine months and we are still getting new information about how you are applying this policy.”
Another student expressed similar sentiments, asking why the groups were being asked to agree to a policy they had not seen: “[We] are being asked to adopt this policy without knowing the scope of it in writing and try it out for a year and then you will put it on paper… why is the onus on us to trust you for a year to work it out?”
McCarty acknowledged that the university did not have clear guidelines on the requirements and that none would be forthcoming.
“It is virtually impossible to put down in a single document all of the permutations in one type of written policy,” he said.
The controversy at Hastings developed because of a dispute over the requirements of a Christian group.
Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco initially told the group, the CLS, it could not expel someone who failed to abide by Christian standards on sexuality under the school nondiscrimination policy. However, after the college’s decision was challenged in court, the administration suddenly declared it had an all-comers policy which applied to every group. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled in favor of the Hastings policy in a 5-4 decision. Justice John Roberts in his dissenting opinion noted that the college unveiled the all-comers policy for the first time during depositions on the case.
Defending the policy McCarty said the university was challenging CLS to “to be open to a member that does not share your faith who could be a wonderful member of CLS, maybe even a leader.”
“That person who maybe does not profess allegiance to Jesus Christ as his or her Lord and Savior should be allowed to run for office in CLS. Maybe it’s not chair or president, maybe it’s a person who is amazing at social outreach,” McCarty said. “It would still be consistent with your goals of serving the underserved with legal advice and legal services but maybe isn’t Christian but they endorse what you’re trying to do. Give that person a chance.”
McCarty said faith views should not be imposed on others.
But Swain noted the obviously difficulty for the university, should Christians decide to join an LGBT club or Muslim organization.