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Catholic club puts faith above Vanderbilt policy

- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2012

A Christian student group said this week that it will not apply to be recognized as an official club at Vanderbilt University because of the school policy making it mandatory that it accept nonbelievers as members - or even officers - of the organization.

Vanderbilt Catholic, a group for Catholic students at the private Nashville, Tenn., school, confirmed that the club will not reregister as an official student organization because of the policy, but will operate as an independent, off-campus ministry.

Last fall, Vanderbilt placed four Christian conservative groups on "provisional status" because they violated the school's nondiscrimination policy, which holds that all students be eligible to join any sanctioned club.

Vanderbilt Catholic was not one of the groups, but the club's leaders could see the writing on the wall.

"Our purpose has always been to share the Gospel and proudly to proclaim our Catholic faith," said the Rev. John Sims Baker, the group's chaplain. "What other reason could there be for a Catholic organization at Vanderbilt? How can we say it is not important that a Catholic lead a Catholic organization?"

Vanderbilt's nondiscrimination policy states that clubs cannot bar students from joining or holding office on the basis of criteria such as race, gender or - most controversially - belief.

The school re-evaluated its policies after a Christian fraternity expelled a member because he was gay.

Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos defended the policy in a January letter to the college community: "At Vanderbilt, we firmly believe that discrimination is wrong. Individuals must be judged as individuals, not members of groups."

Vanderbilt Catholic decided that adhering to the university's new policy would violate the organization's Catholic beliefs.

"They have stated their position straightforwardly, and we have, too," Father Baker said.

Father Baker said the relationship between the club and the school is still amicable, and he is meeting with the college to discuss how his group will continue to interact with the campus.

"We still want to serve the Catholic students at Vanderbilt University," he said.

Other Christian groups are considering their options.

Graduate Christian Fellowship, a ministry for graduate students that focuses on integrating faith, studies and practice, is weighing whether it can continue as an official, university-sanctioned organization.

"At this point, it would be premature to say for sure," said Tish Warren, a leader of the group.

Not all members of the group are Christian, she said, but leaders are expected to set the example with prayer, Bibles studies and worship.

Someone who does not believe in Christian doctrine could not effectively lead those activities, she said.

"We aren't going to compromise on our core religious identity," she said.

Vanderbilt officials have defended the nondiscrimination policy by citing a 2010 Supreme Court decision upholding a similar nondiscrimination policy for school-subsidized student clubs at the University of California's Hastings College of Law.

But Vanderbilt law professor Carol Swain said the administration's interpretation goes beyond the Supreme Court ruling and is being enforced unfairly.

University officials, she said, have made exceptions for traditional fraternities and sororities while applying the policy to conservative Christian groups not affiliated with a denomination.

Ms. Swain, also an adviser to the Christian Legal Society, one of the Christian groups at odds with the college, said she expects other groups, like Vanderbilt Catholic, will decide to duck the rules and go unsanctioned by the administration.

The clubs have until April 16 to apply.

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